As a reporter for the Wet Mountain Tribune, a constant question always nags at the back of my mind, What does it take to get people interested in the stories of a county that is just shy of 5000 citizens? What can we find interesting in news generated from a sleepy town? But the question is bigger than just how do I get people interested. The real question is, how do you get people involved in local issues, and not national movements?
There are many divides between Custer County and the United States. The most striking is the urban verses rural divide. But while this divide is important, it is clear that local communities in urban environments have a hard time gaining the attention of locals. So what is the main problem?
The main problem in my view is the “winner takes all” effect. This is a trend commented on by figures such as Malcom Gladwell and Nassim Taleb, but it is clearly evident in daily life. A rich array of shops in a downtown area are removed by box stores that sit just outside of town, and now those box stores are closing thanks to Amazon. This winner take all is more than just a business problem, it is mainly an informational fact.
In a world that is constantly connecting more people, those people start to desire the same things, and more importantly, consume the same information. The internet has made an existing trend in information consolidation accelerate at alarming speed. So now everyone has the story from the White House, the war in a foreign nation, the shooting in a school. But with the winner take all, what happens to the informational losers?
The losers in the information wars are meetings like the candidate forum at the Custer County high school, as one of the long-term teachers and Westcliffe town trustee observed during the school board election cycle. He wondered, “How can a democracy function if voters are not informed on the choices of candidates?” How does one choose a candidate that they know nothing about?
Cleary, many voters look at the ballot and pick the name they feel comfortable with. This effect of non- rational decision making is well documented in Daniel Kahneman’s masterpiece of behavioral psychology “Thinking: Fast and Slow.” We often pick things based on how we feel about them, things that rationally cannot have any real emotional connection. But if we lack information to make decisions, we do not just stare at the ballot and claim we do not know, we unconsciously turn too other impressions to make the decision.
In an era of winner take all information, decisions on a local level are made not by any real connection to the local issues or unique situations, instead humans rely on what they heard from the winners of information wars. In this case, the national politics and media that spread those messages. The internet and social media, make the winners ever bigger.
I experienced a version of this problem on a Facebook conversation. A local citizen that demonstratively knew nothing about the local school had an extreme opinion on a proposed bond issue to raise over $10 million to upgrade and repair school infrastructure. He spotted the words “without limit” on the information that was sent to him by mail from the Custer County Government and this sent him on a rant on social media (and probably in-person) how the school district was trying to get unlimited taxes in the upcoming election. The dismaying thing was people started to agree with him.
He knew nothing about Ad Volerm taxes, or the mill levy used to collect and pay for the bond the school wanted. But he did not just think, “What does that mean?” and look up the language and issue history. Instead he substituted a national political conservative idea that this was an attempt by the school to raise unlimited funds through the fine print of a bond issue at the tax payer expense. We all have heard that narrative; why? Because the conservative verses liberal narrative has pushed out every other narrative that exists in local political realms.
He lacked information, but substituted that lack of information with a political narrative that he deeply believes. Facts, arguments, even the presentation of other bond issues from others school districts with the same exact language could not shake his conviction that “without limit” really meant the collection of taxes with no limits.
The without limits clause is in regards to the mill levy, the only way a local county can collect taxes from property owners. Bond issues cannot have a mill levy limit because such a restriction would certainly mean that either too little, or more importantly, too much taxes, would be collected from property owners in the county as property values changed each year. The debt has to be paid, but the school does not have a right to collect as much tax as they want. A simple call to the Assessor’s office or the Treasurer or even the school district would have solved the gap in his information. But the more he was challenged, the more he dug in, and what is of greater importance, he convinced more people that an unlimited tax was about to be inflicted on the county tax payers.
Look at the information I had to provide to show that he was wrong, and because the information I provided did not match a national narrative that can easily be latched onto, we could not find any common ground. We were two people arguing with in foreign tongues.
The winner take all effect is absolute.
The problem here is that this effect is unfair, and damaging to everyone. Local services and elections go unnoticed and elections mimic exactly the words and campaigns of the two political national parties. Even restaurants suffer the winner take all effect, hamburger sales account for nearly 65 percent of total food sales in Custer County. Even though there are many other offerings on menus.
So how can a local democracy function if people are not informed? Not well. And the divisions created by narratives that exist outside Custer County will continue to draw interest away from local government, to quarrels about the national government. The only exception that proves the rule in Custer County is the recent recall against the Commissioners, where a clearly conservative national platform was used that had nothing to do with the actual facts or realities in Custer County. It was used powerfully to demonstrate that using a national narrative that demonstratively had nothing to do with local issues, could gain following on the local level.
Words from the recall brochure sit on my desk to remind me that words, even without meaning, can attract followers. The title of the brochure was “Restore Custer County Values & Foundin Principles.” Yet no were there information on values and principles that needed to be restored. Just a list of accusations, none of them with proof.
But once the thrill of the election is over, few will be worked up about anything the commissioners will do. And the informational losers will go on speaking to empty board rooms while everyone uses ever faster broadband to focus attention on the world outside our reality in the Wet Mountain Valley.
Winner takes all and we are not the winners.