Friday, October 12, 2012

Worcester Going the Timbuktu (Tombuctou) Way

Few residents of Worcester or the State of Massachusetts for that matter know about the history of Timbuktu, a historical city in Mali, a West African country. The history of Timbuktu came to mind few days ago (October 2nd), as I was attending a special meeting organized by the Worcester City Council in response to an outrage voiced by some residents of a historical district in the city of Worcester; Specifically residents whose properties are located at a corner bounded by Salisbury and Forest streets. The outrage was prompted by a decision taken by the City Manager who gave the green light to the Commissioner of Public Works to devise a road plan, that in their views would ease the traffic congestion during the rush hours—morning and early afternoon in the said corner It is heartening that the city “officialdoms” finally saw fit to include in their plans resurfacing of Salisbury Street and re-paving the sidewalks. As a resident of Salisbury Street for over 30 years I did not have the good fortune to witness the Department of Public Works in action in my street or Forest Street. Salisbury Street was never resurfaced, the sidewalks crumbled especially in front of my residence but the City was oblivious to the residents needs, even though the neighborhood is perhaps the highest taxed residential area under the City property tax. Opposition to the plan, it seemed incensed some of the Council members and some individuals appearing on the “Council’s corner”. As taxpayers, the residents not only are entitled to voice their concerns for their own neighborhood , but have the “right” under the Manger- Council municipal government to air their concerns before the City Council, after all the Manager is appointed by them and he and his budget must be approved by them. This is what a Manger-Council form of municipal government is about. Perhaps at this stage, I need to enlighten you about the choice of the title of this Blog, and why I felt the need to put down on paper not only my own concerns about the proposed plan, but most importantly the flagrant comments we have received for voicing our opposition to the plan—a right guaranteed to us by the Constitution. In a subsequent Blog I shall address the forms of municipal government: the Mayer- Council form versus the Manger- Council format. For a start, let me convey to you very briefly my own outrage about the decision taken by the City Manager to “mess” around with our neighborhood. Aside from the fact that the plan would reduce if not destroy the quality of life for the residents at the corner of Salisbury and Forest and increase rather than decrease the traffic safety (more on that later), my own concerns have to do with the way the decision in our type of municipal of government—Manger-Council—was carried out. Residents of that corner woke up one morning to find “Orange Markers” placed on their properties, without a word from either the City of Worcester’s department of public works or from their representatives at the City Council as to the reason for this invasion of their property rights. The most obvious action for us was to contact a representative from the public works department to find out. This was done by my neighbor. No satisfactory answer was given. All told was that major expansion affecting the corner is scheduled to take place in a few days. The next course of action was to find out on whose “authority”, and “why” the residents were not contacted about whatever the Manger’s public works department had in mind. We did just that in contacting our Councilman, the one who represents our district. If you believe in a democratic – representative form of government you would be as concerned and incensed as I was. Not only, “we”, the property owners were not consulted before those “orange markers” were placed on our properties, but even worse, that our own Representatives on the Worcester City Council knew nothing about it! To placate few of us, letters appeared the following two days, some neither dated others not signed to inform us of the plan (with incomprehensible maps), explaining the plan and a hurried up meeting was arranged by our district Councilman so that we may hear about the details of the plan, and to allow some of us to voice our reservations about it. To add insult to injury some Councilmen and those on the Manager-council corner not only showed total lack of concerns for the rights of the residents in the affected corner but also sought to educate us about the “role” of government. As an economist of repute with a specialization in the economics of the PUBLC SECTOR, I cannot let some of the contents of said lecture go unchallenged. It is unfortunate for the Councilman who thought to educate us that he made his comments before an economist. To show off his knowledge of the role of the public sector he chose to use John Stuart Mill’s social philosophy to tell us that social rights supersede individual rights. Unfortunately, the speaker invoked an argument by Mill who was concerned with the status of the “LABOURER CLASS” in EIGHTEEN-CENTURY ENGLAND. Had he read the 900 or so pages of Mill’s Principles of Economics he would realized the context in which Mill have formulated his social philosophy. Moreover, if he was aware of the judgments of Nobel Laureates in Economics about Mill, he may have been reluctant to invoke Mill Philosophy. Paul Samuelson, a Nobel Laureate in Economics describes Mill’s presence in the economic sphere as a “transitional figure”, another Nobel laureate in Economics, George Stigler, points out that Mill’s contribution to economic thought was so “minimal” that he had to relinquish the field as an academic to work as a journalist to support his family. Even the father of Socialist thoughts, Karl Marx, had few unkind words about Mill’s brand of socialism. I do not mean by this critique to belittle Mill’s contributions to the principles of economics. Within his 900 pages of his Principles, he pioneered the analysis of tax burden and tax incidence as well as the returns to the factors of production—the heart of the economics of the private economy. It is to be emphasized that the context in which Mill’s socialist philosophy was put before us was not appropriate to the issue being discussed. Expanding the road to help commuters (mostly out of the City of Worcester) avoid traffic delays while causing injury (material in the form of a reduction of the value of property in the affected area, as well as other non pecuniary factors such as the quality of life) to affected property owners do not involve a redistribution to a “labourer class”. In effect residents in the affected area, a highly taxed area under the City of Worcester property tax do pay taxes to support social programs to benefit the resident of the city of Worcester, especially the support of public schools. Spill over of their tax dollars go to support residents of the surrounding Towns especially Holden, a wealthy community whose residents use the Salisbury- Forest Streets for own convenience rather than the use of accessible roads such as Route 190 or Indian lake route. In the public sector economics we call that the “spill over” effect and policy makers in the City of Worcester should be concerned of this effect not only on the residents of the city of Worcester but also on the City budget allocation. Another comment made by an individual in the Manager-Council’s corner was that those of us, who came before the Council to air our concerns, came there in his own words “to hear ourselves talk”. “Pardonez Moi”. I am not privileged to know what kind of education said individual had or from where, but I am more than confident to state, that the average level of education of those of us attending the meeting exceeded the Master degree or MBA and few of us have a PhD degree. I do not believe that any of us needed to speak at the meeting so that we can “hear ourselves talk.” That brings me to the title of this Blog: why the reference to “Timbuktu”? I grew up in Cairo Egypt. One of the hallmarks of education in a country like Egypt at that time was to instill into the children few values, foremost among them is the value of education and good dietary habits. In addition, every child was made aware of the Egyptian history and heritage, after all the Pharaohs dynasty is something all Egyptian have to behold and never forget. No Child in Egypt was not made aware of his/her Egyptian heritage, indeed there was no need to tell about it: everywhere one looked, there before him stood the glorious past made immortal by the accomplishments of the pharaohs, from the Gaza pyramids to the Luxor temples. In short, history resides in every Egyptian’s blood. Where does Timbuktu come in? Mothers all over the world teach their children by examples often invoking history and historical fables. My mother strived to influence our behavior in the formative age with interesting historical foibles. As I was growing up, around the age of 8 years or so, my mother had two things that she insisted on: to be at the top of my class, and to drink a glass of milk daily. The first was not a challenge, throughout my life I have accomplished that; the second was not easy to comply with. No matter how I thought of ways to get away with non compliance, she found out and I had to drink it under her supervision. When I was caught disposing of the milk in lieu of drinking it, I was threatened with the following: “If you do not drink your milk or if you falter in your study you will be shipped to Timbuktu”. At the time it sounded too ominous a threat. I had no idea where Timbuktu was, how I was going to be shipped there, or what to do when I got there. An 8 year-old has not got that far in the history study to have the answers, But as most children know “curiosity” is at the heart of knowledge (WGBH in Boston have been teaching this with their Curious George Fables). Of course I drank the milk and outperformed all my classmates, but I could never get Timbuktu out of my thoughts. Two questions had to be addressed: Where? And why? Studying history gave me the first answer. I find out where Timbuktu was: the second involved not only knowing the location but the political development that shaped the fortunes not only of Timbuktu but also Mali the West African Nation. History unlocks all mystery. History apprises you with the historical development that shaped the fortunes of the city of Timbuktu and its residents as well as the historical and economic development of the West African State of Mali—there I found out the answer to my mother reference to the city of Timbuktu. Going back through history (for a quick historical over view, see The Rough guide to West Africa, edited by Jim Hudgens and Richard Trillo., www., I uncovered the glorious past of Timbuktu, the trials and the tribulations that followed, the rise and fall of the city of Timbuktu, fortunes made and lost, and above all liberty lost and won by the citizen of Timbuktu. What was intriguing to me is to find out the reference by my mother to Timbuktu. As the history unfolds, I found out that Timbuktu, The “Forbidden City” as it has been named from the time of the crusaders, has always fascinated outsiders. The folklore developed in Egypt about Timbuktu goes back to the fourteenth century during the visit to Cairo by Mansa Mousa, the Emperor of Mali. The Emperor stunned the city residents as well as their King with the fabulous entourage, especially with all the gold he carried. The Wealth and opulence of Timbuktu’s royal court was described and marveled at by visitors as late as the sixteenth century, when the fortunes of Timbuktu plummeted. The opulence was replaced with a new legendary reputation: going to Timbuktu became synonymous with “going to the end of the earth – or to hell”. In between these two epics lies the threat. Timbuktu lost its glory, its citizens lost more than wealth—they lost their liberty as one ruler foreign or home grown, one after the other stifled dissent, plundered the city’s resources, imposed heavy and arbitrary taxes on wealthy traders. It took many rulers and few centuries for the citizen of Timbuktu to extract themselves from the tyranny of its rulers, foreign and home grown. Seven centuries later, Timbuktu is regaining some of its glorious past. In 1988, it was formally declared “UNESCO World National Heritage”. The lesson my mother instilled on me in using the example of Timbuktu is that one must be vigilant, if one is to gain a place in the sun, or in Timbuktu’s case in UNESCO World National Heritage. The residents of Worcester, specifically those of us residing in Worcester Historical District, face the threat of the loss of liberty, put differently we face taxation without representation—pay the tax but have no voice. One should always remember that complacency is not compatible with liberty. Here I would like to remember a lesson given by Dr. Herbert Stein, former Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. When asked: “what taxes are for?” His answer: “Taxes are the price of civilization”. We the residents of the Historical District pay our taxes and as taxpayers we have exercised our rights in protesting the expansion plan imposed on us by a manger- council form of municipal government. Our representatives ought to remember that voters can exercise their rights by choosing a form of government that is responsive to those they represent. History had always championed liberty. My next Blog will address this issue as well as the history of the governing structure for the city of Worcester.