Here's a Way to Get Beyond Extremist Rhetoric and Have Productive Water Issue Discussions

Issues like improving water infrastructure need people willing to swear off extreme positions and approach problems in practical ways.

Doug Day, a good friend of mine and a contributor to this magazine, passed away in January 2017. I miss Doug for many things, one being the political discussions we had.

Doug and I were on opposite sides of the spectrum, neither of us extreme. I won’t say who was on which side because in this context it doesn’t matter. The point is that we could and often did sit down over lunch, kick around the issues of the day, and find we agreed on quite a bit. On the rest, we’d simply agree to disagree, and that alone was worthwhile.

I mention this because the capacity to discuss things the way Doug and I did is essential to creating sound public policy, and such policy in turn is essential to moving issues around water, wastewater and infrastructure in productive directions.

Poles in opposition

I like to think that Doug and I were passionate centrists, and no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms. “Centrist” isn’t the same as “lukewarm” or “apathetic.” It’s possible to be passionate about political viewpoints but also have the capacity to see merit in opposing arguments and positions — especially those that split the difference between hyperpartisan ideologies.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that when a political issue hits the table the two sides (and by the way, why only two sides?) move to their extreme positions as surely as a magnet’s north pole repels south, and there’s no way of pushing them together. The harder you try, the more insistent the repulsive force.

If you doubt this, look at an issue like gun rights and the Second Amendment. Or national health care. Or LGBT rights. It’s not to say that no one holds centrist positions, passionate or otherwise, on these issues. It’s just that extreme positions tend to dominate the discussions — picture a cable talk show with two guests shouting over each other — when in reality there’s lots of middle ground available.

Talking taxation

Few issues are tougher to talk about than taxation, specifically how much is the right amount and for what exactly. This is central to discussions about water and wastewater infrastructure and how to renew and sustain it. In this case of course, we’re mostly talking about user fees, not taxes, but the substance is the same. The topic can benefit from a lot of passionate centrism.

I’ve often questioned the premise that “nobody likes to pay taxes.” After all, why should we hate paying for good roads, good schools for our kids, nice parks for our families, clean cities, well-stocked libraries, fire and police protection, and, of course, clean streams, lakes and tap water?

The problem is that when we pay the taxes, we tend to divorce how much we pay from how much we get in return. Unless we think carefully, all we see are different levels of government “taking our hard-earned money.” To many, taxes are always “too high” no matter how many times in recent history they’ve been cut at the federal, state and local levels.

Inevitably, though, we need to discuss taxes (and fees) in terms of how much and for what and, oh boy, how things can get heated! When it comes to infrastructure, we want good public facilities and services. We also don’t want to pay more per month or quarter for them.

The centrist inside

To reconcile the conflict and engage in public debates, we need to reach for the passionate centrist inside ourselves. For my part, I imagine myself at one of those lunchtime discussions with my late friend Doug.  

“Man, water and sewer rates are going up again. I’m already paying quite a bit per month.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But the engineers just said the water mains are falling apart and whole sections of town need rehabilitating.”

“I know, but isn’t that going to be really expensive?”

“Yes, but doesn’t it seem like it’s got to be done?”

“I suppose so. But how can we do it without breaking the ratepayers’ backs?”

And that’s the secret right there. Getting to “how” is a critical step toward getting to agreement. I like to think that’s something passionate centrists are good at. We need more of them.


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