ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Tripp Watson. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
I have an ominous suggestion for you: The political process in Birmingham might actually be working.
What if our elected officials are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing? What if they are looking out for the people that they represent and passing laws that best embody those interests?
This mere consideration has probably sent you into a knee-jerk response that has you questioning a number of my mental faculties. However, I challenge you for 10 minutes to consider a completely plausible, and utterly horrific, hypothesis: The political process in Birmingham is working exactly as it was designed.
Consider this, the purpose of a representative government is to appoint individuals to represent the citizens in consolidating their disparate interests into coherent law. Therefore, in a representative democracy, a single individual is elected to represent a wide variety of people, ideals, and interests. That person’s job is to best reflect those people, ideals, and interests in drafting and adopting laws.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One of the biggest disappointments we can ever make in trusting another is to expect them to act against their own self-interest. A Council member’s self-interest is the collective interest of their constituency.
When our City Council disappoints us, it is rarely because of greed or hate, but often a rational self-interest. For instance, it’s perfectly reasonable for Valerie Abbott to blast non-residents for poking their noses in City business. It’s also reasonable for Kim Rafferty to campaign against ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft, because the City already has existing transportation options, even if they do not service outside the City center. A strong argument can be made that both Abbott and Rafferty are simply doing their jobs. The problem is that it is a job that does not represent nearly three-quarters of the people that now live in the City’s metro area.
The Birmingham metro area is highly Balkanized, with dozens of municipalities fighting to be on top. As the metro area has stagnated, these municipalities have begun to exhibit what my father called “crawfish syndrome,” a unique characteristic of the crustaceans that prevents them from being able to escape from relatively low-sided buckets. Envious colleagues pull the fleeing crawfish back into the bucket, and ultimately no one succeeds.
Birmingham’s multi-muni system used to work well for protecting the identities of the individual cities and encouraging a diverse and competitive landscape, especially when the city was growing and in its early stages. However, as a long-mature metro area, this system’s faults have buckled under stresses the city’s founders never planned for. We are now paying the price of being a modern city with an ancient governmental structure.
Ice-T famously said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” In Birmingham, the political game requires that elected officials ignore a vast majority of the city’s residents, as they are not their constituents. The political game encourages division between Birmingham and “Over-the-Mountain.” The political game discourages business owners who don’t understand or comprehend how opening up another location a mile away will subject them to an entirely different regulatory body.
For Birmingham to succeed, it is time we had a “game-changer.”
Tripp Watson is an Entrepreneur Attorney at The Watson Firm. A Birmingham-native, Watson has been a strong advocate for policy reform in the metro area.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, co-founder of the Small Business Division of the Intermark Group, and co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).