Feed on

Pittsfield Politics

My local ward representative, who just ran unopposed for reelection, sent out an e-mail talking about our city’s plans for redeveloping a blighted area of my neighborhood (Elm Street) and also a plan to require local schools to purchase a portion of their food from local sources. Needless to say, I was not thrilled with what he proposes. My off-the-cuff response is below.


Dear Mr. Ward:

I find it distressing that you ran unopposed this year. I am sure you are happy with that outcome but the democratic process comes out looking a little less than desirable in this matter. I am a new resident here, so opposing you was not an option. It is great that you have goals for Pittsfield, might I comment on the two you mention in the e-mail below?

Elm Street
You seem to think that zoning is the problem when an area is blighted. No doubt this contributes to the “problem” but a more obvious problem is the inefficient structure of the property tax system. Pittsfield, which already has among the highest real estate taxes in Berkshire County, bases property taxes on the total value of a property and does not distinguish between the value of the structures and the value of the underlying land. Under this system, property “owners” who make improvements to the structures in an area are penalized for doing so. While property owners who sit on idle property and speculate that land values will increase are actually rewarded under that system. It should not be surprising that there is not a surge of investment and development in blighted areas under this nonsensical tax system. One way to incrementally improve the situation is to move to a two rate system of taxation, where the rate on improvements is lowered or eliminated, while the rate on the land is increased. What incentive do I have to improve a home or business if my taxes will go up as a result?

This elemental economic problem notwithstanding, there are serious reasons to question the wisdom of much zoning in the first place. Zoning can easily be a ploy by community members to use government to roll over the rights of developers and fellow property owners. It is not hard to imagine local power brokers using the zoning process to restrict other current and future landowners. Thus, in the zoning process, someone often gets hurt. One justification for zoning, for example, is that it helps preserve farmland. Butk, legal arrangements such as restrictive covenants are in the purview of every property owner and farmers selling their land could have signed restrictive covenants ensuring their land be kept as cropland. Property rights, and the laws that purport to protect those rights, allow individuals to act in their own best interest. Zoning, collective decision-making, uses the coercive power of government to restrict usage based on the whims of those in power. And property owners suffer greatly from this. Let property owners decide whether they wish to have a “village center” on Elm Street – trying to orchestrate that vision is dangerous.

Local Food
Your suggestion that keeping even a small portion of the food money we all spend in Pittsfield is pure sophistry. I certainly support local farms when they deliver products and services that I value at prices that I am willing to pay. And I certainly cherish the opportunity for everyone of my fellow neighbors to do the same thing. However, when you start suggesting that our local public school cafeterias be required to purchase local food, the line has been crossed. That is akin to walking straight down the road to serfdom. If it is such a wonderful idea to buy local farm products in our schools, why stop there? Why not require them to purchase desks made only in the Berkshires? Why not require all of the children to wear clothes whose threads were grown in the Berkshires and which were produced here in the Berkshires? Why not make them read books which were authored by people in the Berkshires, and printed with ink produced in the Berkshires? Why stop there? Shouldn’t the school building have materials that all came from the Berkshires and have been built by people that are native to the Berkshires? You probably dismiss this as nonsense … and rightly so. It would be prohibitively expensive if Pittsfield supplied itself with everything it wanted to consume. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

If making schools buy local food ensures prosperity, just think of the bounty that would result of all Pittsfield citizens were required to purchase a percentage of our goods and services right here! I would like you to explain to the people you represent just how forcing schools (and therefore the taxpayers and parents) to buy local will improve prosperity. Sure, it might line the pockets of a few farmers which we can all trot out and point to as enjoying great success from this program. But none of us can trot out the thousands of people who have a little less money and a little less freedom, because they are the unseen victims. Suppose your plan costs every Pittsfield taxpayer $10 extra per year – that’s no big deal. No fool is stupid enough to spend a Thursday night writing e-mails to his councilor because of $10. But, multiply that $10 by 30,000 residents and now you have $300,000. That is $300,000 in real resources. And resources that residents of Pittsfield would prefer to spend in other ways. Perhaps it would result in additional school-teachers, or more frequent road repairs, or more trips to the Clark, or to Spice or whatever. The fact is, we cannot point to those trips not taken. The division of labor and free exchange are what ensure that we are not living the horribly impoverished lives that our ancestors were forced to live in, why do you wish to move us back into that direction?

One Response to “Pittsfield Politics”

  1. Don says:

    You Georgist! How did he respond? Also, do you think I can be added to your blog-roll? A little reciprocity would be nice (I think my site has probably funneled 3 people to your site…)

Leave a Reply