Thinking about what can be done to improve the Economic element in our Comprehensive Plan has been intimidating. I’ve been up against the limits of my own understanding of the subject, and also aware that there are limits to what can be accomplished by even the best-informed and best-intentioned of plans and programs.
In recent days I spent hours, in several sittings at the computer, trying to put together a coherent essay, only to feel that most of that time was wasted. Then I got wise to myself and took what should have been my first step, returning to a book by Wendell Berry that’s been on my shelf since 2010.
The book is What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010). I’ll quote here only from the first essay, “Money Versus Goods,” but the whole book is pertinent to our current circumstances and our future.
As you may know, Mr. Berry is a man with a distinct point of view, and he accepts “agrarian” as a description of his views and values. He’s aware that the United States, and the whole ‘developed’ world, no longer runs on agrarian principles. Likewise, I’m aware that the economy of Bainbridge Island is not agrarian (i. e., ‘living off the land’). There is, however, a good deal of contrarian wisdom in Berry’s principles, and let’s see what can be made of them, applied to our local situation.
Berry cites the British agronomist Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) and his ‘law of return.’ “This law requires that what is taken from nature must be given back: The fertility cycle must be maintained in continuous rotation. The primary value in this economy would be the capacity of the natural and cultural systems to renew themselves. An authentic economy would be based upon renewable resources: land, water, ecological health.”
After describing this authentic economy (also termed ‘a properly ordered economy’) in general terms, Berry observes, “The present and now-failing economy is just about exactly opposite to the economy I have just described. Over a long time, and by means of a set of handy prevarications, our economy has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.”
Toward this essay’s end, Berry admits that he doesn’t know how to bring down to earth “our airborne economy,” adding, “I am inclined to doubt that anybody does.” He does, however, offer an “agenda of changes,” sixteen policy prescriptions, all of which pertain to “the economy of land use.” Most of them align well with the goals in our Comprehensive Plan.
Here’s one last quotation, which speaks directly to our circumstances on Bainbridge Island: “From now on, if we would like to continue here, our use of our land will have to be ruled by the principles of stewardship and thrift.”
* * *
Now, what about our Comprehensive Plan and its Economic element? Principles of stewardship have been prominently featured in our Plan since its inception, and I think they have been underlined and elaborated in the current update. Principles of “thrift”? Not so much, and that makes me uneasy. (What Berry means by ‘thrift’ has nothing to do with being stingy; it’s the basic civic virtue of living within limits, using resources carefully and respecting the ‘law of return.’)
The big challenge, of course, is in the implementation of policies that effectively promote stewardship and thrift. That won’t happen quickly in response to a stiff regulatory regime, but gradually, through subtle changes in habits and community values.
All Bainbridge Island residents participate, more or less self-consciously, in the local economy of Bainbridge Island. So do others who work here though they don’t live on the Island, commuting either from Seattle or the Kitsap peninsula.
It’s the scope, diversity, and wellbeing of the local economy (Island-based businesses of all sorts) that’s the primary focus of the Economic element, but we need to see it in context. A large portion of the wealth and the creature comforts enjoyed in our local economy comes from off-Island sources, and we all benefit from umbilical connections to both greater Seattle and the west side of Puget Sound: we’re not so isolated as we may imagine ourselves to be.
Dependent as we are on other economies in the Puget Sound region, and subject as we are to regional economic trends and pressures, the special sense of place that even visitors and newcomers experience here still arises from our integrity as an island, and from the industry of our local population. It’s a source of pride, and something to be nurtured.
I see our local economy as in some respects distinct from the bigger economies surrounding us; we may be more capable of innovation and reform along the lines Berry and other prophetic voices have proposed.
Are there ways for the City, in its planning and regulatory functions, to influence what takes place in our local economy in support of community values, needs, and goals? The answer to that must be YES, or we wouldn’t be working on the Economic element, but I’d like to see the reach of policies extended further than they do at present.
In today’s environment, we who are directly involved in the Comp Plan update are conscious of risks, vulnerabilities, and possible remedies that weren’t so evident in previous iterations of the Plan. We have many reasons to be concerned, as Wendell Berry is, with “the economy of land use.”
Here’s an important paragraph from the Memorandum that Planning Commissioners received with the agenda for our meeting on October 22, conveying advisory comments from City Manager Doug Schulze and Finance Director Ellen Schroer:
“The current Element is divided into sections that address home-based businesses, small businesses, retail, tourism, agriculture and business/ industrial development, but it’s silent on building/construction, which is one of the biggest drivers we have in good economic times. When building/ construction is down, our economy suffers. The Commission should consider adding a Building and Construction section to the Element.”
I consider this good advice. I hope we can rise to the challenge and develop goals and policies that will not only benefit an important sector of our economy,**(note below) but will provide short-term and long range benefits to our community.
A cynical and alarmist response to the paragraph I’ve quoted would see in it evidence that COBI is biased in favor of Development, in whatever form and at whatever pace the marketplace, especially in good economic times, delivers its benefits. If so, should the Economic element say nothing about building and construction as factors in our local economy?
I don’t read the advice that way, and I would argue with anyone who does that it is up to us citizens, working together as best we can, to respond proactively to the unwelcome pressures and ‘opportunities’ that market forces bring to our shores – and to our well-established and close-knit neighborhoods, our forested acreage, and parts of the Island that are impacted by critical areas or are served by water systems close to capacity.
I believe that market forces ought to be both respected and resisted. Respected, because they arise from fundamental economic rights. Resisted, because the so-called ‘free market’ is not free for all, and can’t be relied upon to provide for the common good. Profit-seeking, while it’s a fundamental driver of economic activity, needs to be tempered; it’s not the same thing as the pursuit of happiness, which is a more basic and civilized exercise of freedom.
Goal and policy statements for the Economic element will be discussed in the Planning Commission meeting on November 12, and we will begin to talk about the Transportation element. Stay tuned.
** Think about it: that sector includes architects, surveyors, heavy equipment operators, arborists, builders, craftsmen of all sorts, suppliers of appliances and home furnishings, landscape designers and their suppliers and workmen, and a host of real estate brokers and salespeople – not to mention lawyers, bankers, investors and insurers.