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political theory | social services

building a "failed state": Trimet shows how

Our public agencies and officials are hard at work building a "failed state." I would define a "failed state" as one that does not meet the minimum requirements for attaining a measure of public legitimacy based on serving broad social needs. Such a state can only maintain authority through brute force. A state will "fail" once it stops serving the needs of a critical mass of its citizens. The term has been coopted by US militarists as a pretext to justify unlawful and violent interference in the affairs of foreign states, but it remains a useful concept in spite of this taint.
We might usefully ask how one would go about deliberately building a "failed state," obviously not because this is desirable (to most of us), but because one of the surest ways of avoiding failure and aiming for success is precisely to understand the modes of failure itself.

So here, in no particular order, are some excellent recipes for failure. As we shall see, some of our local public service agencies, particularly the local public transit agency, Trimet, are doggedly pursuing many of them, with most baleful effects.

1. Insulate public agencies from meaningful answerability to citizens and users of their services

Trimet has from its inception attained this failure mode. It is officially run by an unelected board of political appointees named by the governor of the state, despite being directly responsible for the immediate planning and administration of most of the public transit in the state's largest metro area, the city of Portland and the three surrounding counties of Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas.

2. Turn public agencies into the personal fiefdoms of powerful, career bureaucratic functionaries.

Once again, Trimet is implementing this failure recipe to perfection. Although General Manager Fred Hansen is supposed to answer to the Board of Directors at its public hearings, it is common knowledge that Hansen's decades long sinecure at the helm of Trimet has made him the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The Board is little more than a rubber stamp for this man's fiat. Various public officials have made it clear that, while they sympathize with the cause of transit activists, they won't dare to publicly cross him, and some have even confided to us that they resent his heavy-handed tactics (while carefully prefacing their grievances with disclaimers that they nonetheless hold him in "the highest regard").

3. Use the pretext of "austerity measures" to implement unpopular bureaucratic wishlists

Trimet's slow-mo dismantling of Fareless Square comes to mind. For the past two years, Trimet has been publicly floating ever-shifting rationales for its preference to eliminate this popular public amenity. Our discussions with board members on the issue have never elicited coherent explanations for this heavy-handed takeback. But Trimet career bureaucrats, with Hansen in the lead, have been pushing for it, and that seems to be all that counts. Trimet's own staffers have confided that they've been looking for ways to dismantle Fareless since as far back as 1989. The most believable explanation for this is that it creates a systemic "nonuniformity" in the agency's service, which in turn generates more administrative work and headaches for agency bureaucrats. Never mind that it is the premier goodwill ambassador for public transit in the region, and Trimet's own impact analyses on the subject did not devote even an iota of consideration for the adverse impacts that eliminating it might have on this score.

4. Balkanize universal services and replace them with "tiered" and "means-tested" ones.

This is a terrific way to gradually erode broad-based public support for any public service. The recipe is as follows: Announce "austerity measures" that increase user fees and severely reduce or eliminate important services and amenities for most users. Later, announce special exceptions for the "needy" or otherwise disproportionately impacted members of the public, along with a battery of hoops they must jump through and tests they must meet to qualify for them.

This ensures that the broader public support for any public service plummets, since it's of less and less benefit to the majority of potential users, while buying off the most vocal complainers, who might otherwise find common cause with the majority of the public in opposing such bureaucratic schemes. Once again, Trimet seems to be applying this recipe flawlessly in the case of Fareless Square. Based on the latest reports we've gotten from individuals on Trimet's own public advisory committee, the agency will announce a limited availability, "reduced cost" bus pass for people who qualify, giving reduced cost access to all transit services in what was formerly "Fareless Square" for everyone on all public transit vehicles.

5. Elevate image supreme over substance

Portland's public officials are eager to tout it as the world's premier "green" city. "Sustainability" is the buzzword of the day. Meanwhile, one of the supposed linchpins on the way to this fabled "sustainability," effective public transit, is being methodically undermined with increasingly painful service cuts and fare increases. But public officials who have gotten so much mileage out of Portland's "green and sustainable" meme have been completely mum about such unpleasantness. Why?

Trimet General Manager Fred Hansen, the region's perennial transit "czar," is now well known for enjoying opulent junkets to far-flung places like Australia, where he is an official paid consultant on "green transportation planning." Might it not be too much of a stretch to wonder if other local luminaries in the same general politician/bureaucrat/high-visibility "public servant" career path worry whether they too will be able to enjoy such perks if they dare to break the "green" spell by casting any doubts or aspersions on it (or on Hansen himself, perhaps its most comfortable beneficiary)?

6. Expand bureaucratic discretion and reduce oversight

Once again, Trimet is leading the way on this score. General Manager Hansen most recently has been pushing for large increases in the dollar cap allowed on nonreviewable "change orders" in expensive public works projects that can be authorized at his and his immediate underling's sole discretion, a dangerous expansion of authority that has reportedly led to much mischief in other, similar jurisdictions, notably Los Angeles's MTA, that region's counterpart to Trimet. Trimet Board Member Lynn Lehrbach was alone in questioning the wisdom of this

It is said that "the fish rots from the head." We are entering a danger zone for all public services now, and the little lamented and much scorned recently exiting national administration seems to have set many dangerous precedents in this regard, becoming the role model for an eerily similar replication of its own vices at all lower levels of government. The Bush Jr regime set new standards for arrogance, opacity, self-dealing, and image manipulation that left even some of its apologists shamefaced. Unfortunately, though, for lack of any consequences to the perpetrators (thus far), the resulting low bars have set precedents for governments at all levels and offered footsteps to follow in with impunity.

Will the public stand for these plummeting standards, and will the legacy of this dark era be an even further downward spiral in public confidence in government at all levels? Will cynicism trump idealism even in places like Portland, which prided themselves on "bucking the (national) trend"? Are we on our way to the culmination of a failed state, right here in "progressive Portland" itself?