Atomized by Design

Individuals could come together into something greater…

A few days ago, Nora received a book from a friend in the fiber community, having to do with woven coverlets. It turns out that the author of that book is a member of the board of The National Museum of the American Coverlet. You might share my surprise that such a museum exists, or that it has a board of directors, or that you, too, could be a member for a forty dollar annual fee.

I don’t mean to pick on the NMAC. I’m delighted that an historic art form, one practiced mostly by women in relative anonymity, is recognized and honored. But the fact of its existence made me think about how many small groups there are in America, each hoping to survive by finding its tiny community.

Higher education has thousands and thousands of organizations related to its work. In fact, almost certainly more organizations than colleges and universities themselves. It would be a marvelous research project to learn exactly how many higher ed organizations there are, how many millions of volunteer hours they consume, how many billions of dollars they peel away from their institutional members for workshops and travel and membership fees. The private enterprises of airlines and conference hotels are massively subsidized by higher education, one meeting at a time.

There are organizations about the operation of higher ed as a business. There are organizations about various modes of student support. There are organizations about pedagogical methods, and about research methods. There are organizations to support disciplines, and sub-disciplines, and transdisciplines. There are organizations to support different tiers of teachers: faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, grad students. There are organizations to assist with and oversee accreditation. Each of those has conferences and conventions, publications, governance, websites, staff. Each of those have members, whether institutional or individual, who pay dues. They represent an unseen division of the higher education enterprise, the tens of thousands of weft threads that are woven across the five thousand warp threads of individual colleges to form the incoherent plaid of American higher ed.

I served on our Town’s Select Board for six years, and one of the things that I’m still so surprised by is Vermont’s governance structure in which the layer of the county is irrelevant. Vermont has fourteen counties, which do almost nothing. They’re a regional convenience overseen by the Superior Court, whose judges hire a clerk and a treasurer and which pays the salary of a Sheriff. The state mandate of the counties’ Sheriff’s Departments are also court-related: secure transportation of prisoners or the mentally ill. Whatever other duties they have are taken up as commercial agreements with schools and towns, like any other private security company.

The real home of governance in Vermont is its two hundred and fifty or so towns. In Rutland County, there are 27 of them (plus the City of Rutland), ranging in size from Castleton at 4,717 residents down to West Haven’s 264. Each town elects its own clerk, responsible for dog licenses and marriage licenses and maintaining the property records. Each elects its own treasurer, responsible for payroll and accounts payable and accounts receivable and grants management. Each has its own board of property appraisers, its own board of auditors, its own microscopic endowments that distribute a few hundred bucks at a time to a graduating senior or a dairy farmer.

In other states, much of this would be handled at the county level. You’d go in to the county building for your marriage license or to do a title search or transfer your mortgage, and the office would be open from 8am to 5pm five or six days a week. And they’d pay (and train) four professional clerks instead of 27 different elected clerks with wildly different skills, each of whom works for a few hours a week. (Our town office is open Monday and Tuesday except for lunch, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning, a wonderfully random array.] Vermonters distrust larger levels of government almost reflexively, and are more than willing to exchange expertise and supervision for “local control.”

But that’s hardly unique to Vermont. The notion of local control is baked into our Constitution, making America nearly ungovernable. Every state gets to make fundamental (and wildly diverse) decisions about education and taxation and judicial organization and speed limits and liquor distribution and elections. We were a country designed for an era of limited mobility and limited diversity and limited information, and we hobble forward in our starched waistcoats and powdered wigs into an unknowable future, divided from one another by our commitment to autonomy, entirely unable to plan.

And so all of these ancillary organizations arise, doing the things informally that we could do far more efficiently and effectively (and less expensively) than we do now. We are so fearful of “government” that we doom ourselves to volunteerism and amateurism in every endeavor, a hidden tax of memberships and time and training sessions and mistakes that is our invisible balancing of the books; and we pay an immense number of for-profit businesses to do things that we could provide publicly. These are our investments in the misshapen ideal of small government.

We are not a loose band of competing British colonial land commissions any more. States are the very worst idea of American governance, but by historical circumstance and political wrestling, they hold vast and counterproductive power. We are reduced to George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light,” each wrangling with all the others for a few dollars here and there, unable to illuminate the way forward.

In his masterful history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis uncovers the way that the early commercial speculators of Southern California worked to create an immense number of smaller cities in the LA basin, so that none would be able to develop sufficient power to hinder the oligarchs’ dominance. We resist funding government functions, but we’re more than happy to give billions to Jeff Bezos instead, with no accountability. We recoil in horror from “socialized medicine,” never thinking to do the arithmetic of how much we spend on profits and staffing costs for health insurance companies that don’t really need to exist at all. (If you’re worried about a “bloated bureaucracy” or “death panels,” I suggest you needn’t look any further than Blue Cross Blue Shield or Humana.) America is designed for selfishness and mistrust and competition, which somehow we have rebadged to masquerade as virtues. We believe that the world is meager and harsh, that we must fight with our fellow citizens for the scraps; by so believing, we make that vision manifest. Our current political and public health crises are a fundamental and predictable part of the design, not a surprise.