Public Citizen - Larry Barnett


The unintended consequences of doing nothing

Those opposed to the Hotel Limitation Measure – Measure B, are lavishing their criticism on the prospect of unintended consequences. In acts of pure speculation, they proffer a list of the unintended consequences, displaying an uncanny ability to forecast the future as they see it. Miraculously, global warming and hair loss have not yet made their list.

Of course, the Hotel Limitation Measure has one major intended consequence, namely stopping the creation of big hotels. Everyone, critics included, seem to agree on this point; measure B stops big hotels. From there, however, forecasts vary. Those of us who support limiting the size of new hotels see positive outcomes, and those who oppose the idea only see negative ones. Such is politics and difference of opinion.

What gets no discussion from opponents, however, are the unintended consequences of doing nothing, which is what they suggest. One assumes the intended consequence of doing nothing is the “self-regulation” of the marketplace, which is a far cry from doing nothing. Doing nothing is a form of doing, make no mistake about it. We used to call this “laissez faire” back in the days when French expressions were popular, “letting things be.” It’s a quaint notion tied to a slower, less technological time where local decisions stayed local. Today’s world is altogether different, and the interrelated effects of what gets done spread far, wide and quickly.

We needn’t look far to see what happens when as a society we pursue the policy of doing nothing; we end up in a terrible mess. We endlessly repeat the behaviors that are problematic, hoping that outcomes will change and be better over time. I think it was Einstein who called this particular approach to problem solving “insanity.” We look back at what’s happened and shake our heads and wonder how we let things happen. We let go of the traditions, the history and the meaning of what binds us together and retreat into our personal caves and cocoons for comfort. Outside our doors the world gets dirtier, the water less pure, the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. None of this is intended, of course.

Those who warn of unintended consequences might as well argue that any intention whatsoever is misguided, any policy problematic, no solution workable. They are making a case for being asleep while awake, turning off and tuning out. Such views are nihilistic; it’s no wonder anti-depressants are the most prescribed drugs in America. They neither trust others, nor themselves to actually engage with the world, only the larger abstract notion of “the system,” be it the free-market, politics as usual, unfettered individual initiative or silent acquiescence.

The problem is that the world no longer can tolerate “doing nothing” and this applies to the City of Sonoma, as well, not to mention the Valley and the County as a whole. As a region we are addicted to tourist dollars, and have otherwise become numb. In our imaginings we believe tourism is a magic lantern with a genie that answers all wishes. But relying on tourism is relying on the “trickle-down” system of economics, that old saw from the Reagan era. Hotel taxes have become so important we are now hostage to them, and that reliance has blinded us to both its hidden costs and vulnerability. Yet another set in the unintended consequences of doing nothing.

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