How We Look Shapes What We See

All of our policy debates are driven by differing perspectives. Often those differences are political. Sometimes they are proximal. How near you are to the problem or the solution alters your perspective in important ways. Are you looking at the forest or the trees?

Everyone agrees that our legislators in Salem should do everything possible to curb our future PERS obligations. “Everything possible” looks different from up close.

Lawmakers and lobbyists tell us that this change or that one won’t make much of a difference in the long run. Writing the guiding legislation, monitoring its implementation, fighting any court challenges — that’s a lot of work for what could turn out to be negligible savings. The forest looks different from the trees.

Every logger has encountered a particular tree that looked like it was not worth the trouble. It was diseased or infested to its core, standing only because it was wedged between two others. It was obviously home to some gorgeous feathered family. It may have had marks at a bend that looked all the world like the logger’s sippy straw from childhood.

None of that matters when the boss surveys your work from a hilltop aerie or a plane circling overhead. The boss won’t see the bugs or the birds or the straw — but he will see that one tree, standing alone in the tract he paid you to clear.

Oregon taxpayers expect lawmakers to clear the field, looking for any relief possible from future PERS burdens. It may not be enough. But until you’ve done everything, people won’t believe that. Every nickel raised in fees and every dime cut from services will be linked to that one uncut tree.

  • “Well, they wouldn’t have had to close this office during my lunch hour, if only PERS benefits had been capped at $100K per year.”
  • “My dog’s tags cost me five dollars more than last time. That’s because PERS retirees got to count their vacation time toward their retirement base.”
  • “I wish the city would empty these trash containers more often. Too bad they didn’t claw back that six percent PERS pick-up in their last collective bargaining agreement.”

We become the mill owner who bought the forest. He wants every twig scraped off that land. From his point of view, anything less wouldn’t make sense. It has everything to do with his proximity and almost nothing to do with his politics.

Notice how perspective changes when the topic shifts to something close to home.

Eugene city staff recommended that dogs and smoking be banned from downtown sidewalks. Now the details become important — exactly which dogs on which blocks and which smokers at what times? Eugene City Council tinkered with the dog policy and voted against the smoking ban.

Proximity makes you more aware of the stories behind the exceptions. You know the young mom in a custody battle who needs her cigarette breaks to stay focused on her job and the company’s deadlines. You know the brilliant computer coder who likes the dogs downtown more than the people.

One senior city staff person told me this week, “I don’t dislike dogs. One of our employees had her dog killed by another dog on the street downtown. That’s just not right. I don’t know whose dog it was, but that’s why I support the ban. It has nothing to do with our homeless population.”

It doesn’t — if you’re looking at a tree. But if you’re surveying the forest of downtown’s troubles, you want to see that we’re doing everything possible to make downtown safe and inviting.

Will the dog ban make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. The ordinance will sunset on November 1, so for the next seven months, there will be one less tree in that forest.

On each issue we confront, both perspectives are valid and important. Train whistles, traffic calming, development density, school closings, employer mandates, and on and on. Are you looking at the forest or the tree?

If you’re not sure, here’s how you can tell. When policy changes are implemented — when the tree falls — can you hear it make a sound?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.