Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Friday, October 02, 2009

City Council Ponders Resolution to Close Pandora’s Box

Following the recent “longwinded” City Council debate on abolishing nuclear weapons (“Nuke talk sparks heated Cambridge council debate,” Chronicle 9/23/09), the Chronicle posted an online poll, asking, “Would you support a ballot question calling for the end of nuclear weapons?”

At the time of writing, the landslide poll winner, with 62% of the vote, is the obvious (and irritated) question, “Why is the City Council talking about this again?” Apparently Cantabrigians have sufficient common sense to realize that nuclear proliferation is not an appropriate topic for a City Council, which just might want to focus on the challenges facing our fair City. The last time I checked, President Obama, and Senators Kerry and Kirk were still in office and fully authorized to deal with national issues.

Councilor Marjorie Decker’s counter-argument is that “municipalities around the country and around the world … have been able to hold the international community to a higher standard.” I have great respect for grassroots citizens’ groups who participate in national politics. The tea party protesters, for instance.

But wait a minute—the City of Cambridge is not a grassroots group. What exactly is Councilor Decker talking about? Despite her delusions of grandeur, she is still only a City Councilor (and perhaps not for much longer). The Constitution clearly delegates national defense to the federal government. City government has a charter from the state, permitting it to collect taxes for municipal needs, not to advise the President on foreign policy. A President who, by the way, as the Chronicle points out, “has already publicly stated his goal to negotiate a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.” I somehow doubt that he breathes a sigh of relief each time he receives a missive from the City Councilors: “Ah, yes, Cambridge has spoken. I can finally act!”
In addition to being a pointless, feel-good gesture, the ballot question would cost Cambridge taxpayers around $35,000. This is really a subsidy to Massachusetts Peace Action, the Cambridge-based chapter of Peace Action that requested the ballot question. If they want to send a message to the President, why don’t they collect signatures and pay for their own survey? Councilor Decker refers to Peace Action as “citizens”—constituents who deserve representation. No, they are a non-profit advocacy group engaged in lobbying for legislative change. What about all the other essential causes that Cambridge residents might feel passionately about? Global warming? World hunger? $35,000 is a significant contribution to a small non-profit. Why should the City Councilors choose Peace Action above any other advocacy group? Why should the City Council choose any non-profit over adequately funding its pension and health-care obligations? Massachusetts Peace Action should address its advocacy to the federal government and leave our City Council to deal with the business at hand. Perhaps a “longwinded” discussion of our completely unfunded $602 million liability for Other Post Employment Benefits? If our City Council has nothing better to do with its time, are we allowed to ask why we budget $1.46 million for their salaries and expenses?

And just think of all the other things we could do with $35,000, such as hiring a tutor to work in one of Cambridge’s under-performing schools. Then again, priority would likely be given to funding one third of a new position of Administrative Assistant for Administration. Not counting retirement and health care benefits through 2069. Perhaps it would be worth $35,000 to see how many Cambridge residents believe in the tooth fairy.

This brings us to a second question, which seems to have not been raised in this debate: is it a good idea to abolish nuclear weapons?

Perhaps the most frightening line of the Chronicle article is Councilor David Maher’s statement that the ballot to abolish nuclear weapons “is going to pass in the city by a huge percentage.” Are the intelligent people of Cambridge really that naive?

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has serious flaws, but its three pillars—non-proliferation, good-faith arms reduction talks and peaceful use of nuclear power—are worthwhile goals. President Obama and Massachusetts Peace Action however are advocating the far more dangerous and utopian goal of outright abolition of nuclear arms. I rather doubt the world will be a safer place if rogue nations have nuclear arms and we do not.

Nuclear arms technology has escaped Pandora’s box. No City Council resolution can get it back in.