Monday, June 17, 2013


Today, a good article in the local Daily Hampshire Gazette laundry-listed the tax burdens Northampton (my home town) residents had been asked to assume in the recent past. The article was written as an adjunct to a current tax request for an additional $2.5 million. The request is scheduled for a popular vote on June 25. I read the article from end to end, something I seldom do with longish articles.

And then I felt galvanized enough to submit my own take to the paper. That's what I have been doing this morning so far. And since the printing of the article is dubious (the tax proposition has generated a lot of space-consuming reaction pro and con), I think I'll just put it here.


Perhaps it could be called a touchstone in the arsenal of the socially-sensitized and environmentally-aware, a witticism credited to the Irish author, Oscar Wilde : "Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

On the one hand, it sounds accurate: The painting of the Mona Lisa is currently valued at something less than a billion dollars. But for those who love art, the market-place value, while enormous, can hardly rival the delight of a soaring heart ... beauty and quality, by whatever definition, have no price.

Which brings me around to Northampton's latest $2.5 million tax override debate and the decisive vote scheduled June 25. Signs are sprouting on front lawns. "Vote Yes!" Schools, public safety, public works and a host of other needs are cited in support of the override.

But the cap stone argument for all of it is a single magic wand -- a paroxysm of emotional righteousness that trumps all counterclaims: The city's "quality of life" hangs in the balance.

The first thing to notice about the "quality of life" argument (and the price of everything and the value of nothing argument as well) is that whenever the "quality of life" is put forward, it always seems to cost money. "Quality" may go beyond the mundane confines of money and yet demands money to keep its stature burnished. This irony seldom seems to trouble those waving the magic "quality of life" wand.

But what is the "quality of life?"

A year of so ago, when my son was wrapping up a stint at Northampton High School, I drove up to watch him compete in a track competition. He was throwing the shot put, an event held on a back left portion of the enormous and enormously-well kept greensward. The day was perfect -- sunshine-y and bright. And as I walked to the back portion of the field, I had a chance to watch a girls' softball team hard at it; a lacrosse team soaring and swooping in search of the ball; and in the far right rear, a boy's hardball team swinging for the fences. Idly, it crossed my mind, "Would the games be any less fun, any less spirited, any less informative and healthy if the kids were not all wearing their perfect uniforms?" It wasn't a complaint; it was just a question.

And a couple of years back, I asked my older son, now a deans-list student at Keene State College, if he felt that Northampton High School had adequately prepared him for college. He replied with a certainty that lacked any particular bitterness: "No, but I don't think anything could have prepared me for it."

I'm not picking on Northampton High School here. I am simply mentioning aspects of my life which, when spliced together, seem to speak to whatever my "quality of life" might be. I do not mention the road projects that strike me as busy-work but are labeled as helpful to travelers (think cobble-stoned islands in the road) or other civic exercises that strike me as wasteful: My "quality of life" is always impacted by wider or other versions of "quality of life" and while I may hope that my "quality of life" and yours don't conflict, hope and a couple of dollars will get me a bus ride.

As a retiree living on a fixed income, my views are just my views. And that, as far as I can figure out, is the point. "Quality of life" has no fixed and over-arching meaning and can lay claim to no assured and arrogant boundaries. Whining and whimpering about the "quality of life" is largely self-serving argumentation searching in vain for legitimacy. No one wants Northampton to turn into another Detroit, but there are trade-offs that deserve a more careful scrutiny.

If "quality" and "beauty" supersede anything as mundane as a checkbook, I hope that those devoted to these timeless values will stop asking me to write larger and larger checks.

After a while, the arrogance becomes galling.

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