The facts behind the “facts”: The reality of public meetings on major projects

A Facebook acquaintance of mine posted an update declaring that she wanted “FACTS” (her capitalization, not mine) about the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to her, the facts are that “there were many meetings years ago to discuss the possibility of the pipeline where locals had the opportunity to voice their opinion and it’s recorded that there was not a lot of opposition at these meetings.”

OK, so let’s talk about a few facts about these sorts of public meetings.

  1. Statement in public notice about the Dakota Access Pipeline
    This is an actual statement that appeared in a public notice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Is this English or Newspeak?

    Often the only legally required public announcement about an upcoming meeting like this is in the legal notices section of the newspaper. The legal notices section of the newspaper. Did you know there was one? (Did you know that newspapers still exist?) In my experience they’re usually in the “local” or “metro” section of the newspaper, in the back, tucked in among classified ads, with the same sort of small print. Compelling, must-read stuff there, people! So, clearly these people should have known the public meetings were taking place.

  2. These meetings are often held at places and times that make them difficult to attend. I mean, really, what person working full-time with young children at home can’t make time to attend a two-hour-long meeting at 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening about a project that may (or may not) be built five to ten years from now? Especially when the meeting is conveniently held 20 or 30 miles from where you live.
  3. The full scope of the project, and its full impact, is often not apparent at these meetings. If the final design or environmental impact statement is available at the time of these meetings, text is often heavy on jargon and legalese, not everyday language that makes it easy for the average layperson to understand what will actually be happening. And images? Well, since we’re all experts at reading blueprints and technical diagrams, the obvious impact on water supplies two decades from now should really be apparent, shouldn’t it? And all of that is assuming that the final design is presented at these meetings. Often projects are still in preliminary stages of planning at the time of these meetings — one of the reasons jargon-y, technical language and diagrams are all that’s available. And the full scope and impact of a project may not be apparent until after the final design, which is often completed after these public meetings.

    Dakota Access Pipeline diagram
    This is an actual diagram that appeared in that public notice I mentioned above. That red line just looks like it’s going to destroy the water supply for an entire group of people, doesn’t it?
  4. It is difficult to organize vocal, impactful opposition to appear at these meetings. I refer you back to items 1 and 2 above. If you want to stand as the lone voice of opposition in front of a panel of elected officials and highly-paid and highly-educated technocrats, go ahead. That’s noble of you, and I respect you for it. But it gets lonely out there, and if it feels like you’re just talking to the wall, it’s because you very well may be. In part because of item 5.
  5. These meetings are often held just to fulfill the legal requirement that a public meeting be held. But, let’s face it, the government and its private-sector partners aren’t really looking for feedback or support or opposition. They’re just looking to mark a checkbox on their way to rubber-stamping a project. So, even if there were overwhelming opposition to a project at these public meetings, it may not matter.

If you found out that a proposed project had the potential to pollute your water supply, threatening your health and livelihood as well as that of your family, friends, and community and irreparably damaging your land, should I really tell you to keep your mouth shut because there was a public meeting about it years ago and you didn’t show up? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Do you think the president and the media and the public are really going to pay attention to someone who voices their opposition in a three-minute statement at the microphone at one of these public meetings? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

All of this is why we have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of petition and peaceable assembly, because sometimes that’s the only way to voice your opinion at the time that it actually matters. It is difficult to fault the Standing Rock tribe for their opposition to the pipeline or the way in which they’ve chosen to express that opposition. Failure to show up at or express opposition at some public meeting about a major infrastructure project years before that project actually happens is not tacit approval of the project. The window to voice your opinion does not close when the meeting is over, because the First Amendment keeps it wide, wide open.

Amending the Constitution, from a mathematical perspective

Twenty-four years ago this month, the Constitution of the United States changed for the last time when the 27th Amendment, which restricted the pay raises Congress gives itself from taking effect until after the next election, was ratified by Michigan’s legislature. The amendment is unusual in that it was originally proposed and approved by Congress in 1789 as part of the Bill of Rights, but it wasn’t ratified by enough states at the time. That means it took 202 years, 7 months, and 12 days to be ratified, a record unlikely ever to be broken, especially since these days most constitutional amendments that actually overcome the hurdle of being approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress — a rare occurrence in and of itself — include a restriction that they will not be valid unless they are ratified by the required number of state legislatures within seven years. (Article V of the original Constitution, which outlines the amendment process, requires three-fourths of the states, or 38 of the current 50, to ratify an amendment for it to become valid.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Actually changing the U.S. Constitution by an amendment is a long, arduous process, so it doesn’t happen very often. In fact, it’s happened only 27 times since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, or only 18 times if you consider the fact that the first ten amendments, comprising the Bill of Rights, were all ratified at the same time. So we get used to the idea that the Constitution is, for all intents and purposes, unchanging — at least, its text doesn’t change, even if our interpretation of it does. Or that maybe it was amended frequently in the past, but amendments just don’t happen as often today.

As of today (18 May 2016), it has been 8,777 days since the 27th Amendment became part of the Constitution. But that makes it, in fact, only the third-longest gap between amendments in the nation’s history. The longest was the 22,454-day gap — that’s 61 years, 5 months, and 21 days — between the ratification of the 12th Amendment, which changed how the president and vice president are elected, on 15 June 1804 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, on 6 December 1865. The second longest gap was the 15,705 days — exactly 43 years — between the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which extended voting rights to African American men, on 3 February 1870 and the ratification of the 16th Amendment, which authorized the federal income tax, on that date in 1913.

Astonishingly, the shortest period between ratification of amendments occurred right after that: the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of U.S. senators, was ratified just 64 days later, on 8 April 1913.

Here’s the full chart of amendments with their ratification dates and the gap, in days, between changes to the Constitution.

Date ratified
Original Constitution 21 June 1788
Gap: 1,272 days
Bill of Rights (amendments 1–10) 15 December 1791
Gap: 1,150
11 7 February 1795
Gap: 3,415
12 15 June 1804
Gap: 22,454
13 6 December 1865
Gap: 946
14 9 July 1868
Gap: 574
15 3 February 1870
Gap: 15,705
2nd longest
16 3 February 1913
Gap: 64
17 8 April 1913
Gap: 2,109
18 16 January 1919
Gap: 580
19 18 August 1920
Gap: 4,541
20 23 January 1933
Gap: 316
21 5 December 1933
Gap: 6,293
22 27 February 1951
Gap: 3,683
23 29 March 1961
Gap: 1,030
24 23 January 1964
Gap: 1,114
25 10 February 1967
Gap: 1,602
26 1 July 1971
Gap: 7,616
4th longest
27 7 May 1992
Gap: 8,777
3rd longest
Today 18 May 2016

On average, including the time between the ratification of the 27th Amendment and today, there are 4,381 days between ratified amendments — meaning that the Constitution has been changed about every 12 years in the nation’s history. Overall, because of the long, 61-month gap between the 12th and 13th amendments, the trendline over the nation’s history points down slightly. But the trend does seem to be getting longer: if you look at just the 20th and 21st centuries, the trendline is up quite sharply. Indeed, the 3rd and 4th longest periods between amendments in the nation’s history are the two most recent.

So what does that mean for us today? When might we be able to expect our Constitution to be changed by amendment again? Of course, amendments depend upon politics, not math, but math can give us some interesting data:

  • The current period between amendments surpassed what is now the 4th longest — between the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18, and the 27th — on 14 March 2013.
  • If it takes as long as the 2nd longest period between amendments, the next amendment would be ratified on 7 May 2035.
  • If it takes as long as the longest gap between amendments, the next amendment wouldn’t be ratified until 2053 (28 October of that year to be exact).

On a final note, as of this writing, the Constitution of the United States was ratified 83,241 days ago. That’s a lot of spins of the earth on its axis.

Order a copy of my print of the complete text of the Constitution of the United States, including all 27 amendments, from my Etsy shop.

Scene at the Signing of the of the Constitution of the United States
by Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952)

If the MTA’s debt were a GDP …

One of the eye-popping financial figures being much talked about in the New York City media over the past few days is the Straphangers Campaign‘s report (PDF) that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s debt, currently $34.1 billion, is greater than the national debt of 30 countries.

A sobering figure indeed.

But that got me to thinking: how many countries have GDPs smaller than the MTA’s debt? And I have an answer:


That’s right: 102 sovereign nations have an economic output smaller than the MTA’s current debt.

If we follow the Straphangers Campaign’s lead and exclude nations with a GDP smaller than U.S. $10 billion, that still leaves us with a lengthy list of 45 countries:

Country 2013 GDP
Billions of U.S. $
Jordan 33.7
Bahrain 32.8
Tanzania 32.7
Latvia 31.0
North Korea 30.7
Bolivia 30.2
Paraguay 29.0
Cameroon 28.0
Trinidad & Tobago 27.8
Côte d’Ivoire 27.2
Estonia 24.5
El Salvador 24.3
Uganda 23.5
Zambia 23.4
Cyprus 21.9
Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.3
Afghanistan 20.7
Bosnia and Herzegovina 19.4
Honduras 18.6
Nepal 18.2
Brunei Darussalam 17.0
Georgia 16.1
Equatorial Guinea 16.1
Senegal 15.6
Cambodia 15.5
Mozambique 15.3
Botswana 15.3
Papua New Guinea 14.8
Iceland 14.6
Jamaica 14.3
Albania 12.6
Namibia 12.4
Mauritius 12.0
Burkina Faso 11.9
Mongolia 11.5
Nicaragua 11.3
Chad 11.2
Gabon 11.1
Armenia 11.0
Palestinian Authority 11.0
Zimbabwe 10.9
Laos 10.9
Mali 10.8
Madagascar 10.6
Macedonia 10.2

Looking at the full list of 102, the MTA’s debt is greater than the combined GDP of the bottom 28 nations ($34.1 billion versus $32.1 billion).

The full spreadsheet with all the nations and GDP data can be found here.

These figures were reported in the June 2014 Metro Economies Report (PDF) issued by The United States Conference of Mayors. The report was prepared by IHS Global Insight. The original report included a few “nations” I have excluded here, including American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which I consider to be a part of the United States, and the French overseas departments of French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion, which are a part of France.

Photo: Fulton Center, the stunning new subway station that opened in November 2014 in Lower Manhattan, cost $1.4 billion to construct—more than the GDP of 18 countries.

Does America need its states?

Are states an anachronism, an outdated relic of an earlier era? That’s the question prolific writer, blogger, and urbanist Aaron Renn—a.k.a. the Urbanophile—poses in a recent blog post, reposted from 2011. Mr. Renn draws heavily upon the writings of Richard Longworth in describing the myriad ways states are hobbling cities and metro areas economically and politically—and states certainly provide a lot of fodder. Specifically, there are five broad ways in which states are harming cities’ and metro areas’ economic competitiveness—which, in turn, is damaging the national and, ironically, state economies as well:

  1. “States do not represent communities of interest.” The vast borders of most of the states pull together cities and regions with disparate histories, cultures, and economies. No wonder there is such dysfunction in so many state governments.
  2. “Arbitrary state lines encourage senseless border wars.” Take Kansas and Missouri, for example. Forget competing with Europe, China, India, and the rest of the world; they’re just slugging it out with each other.
  3. “Many state capitals are small, isolated, and cut off from knowledge about the global 21st century economy.” Look at the location of many, if not most, state capitals: they’re located at the geographic, not economic and cultural, center of the state. Sure, you have Atlanta, Boston, and Phoenix, but you also have Sacramento, Tallahassee, and Jefferson City—the last of which is so isolated it’s not even connected to the Interstate Highway System. (A certain town called Albany also comes to mind.)
  4. “Metro areas are the engines of the modern economy, but the rules for municipal and regional governance are set by states, and often in a manner that is directly contrary to urban interests.” This neatly sums up my years of work for The United States Conference of Mayors and its Metro Economies Reports: metro areas are the engines of the nation’s economy—some 90% of GDP is produced within the nation’s 360+ urban areas. If we want our economy to grow and to remain viable in the face of mounting global competition, we need to concentrate public and private investment in urban areas, and we need to cooperate rather than compete with each other.
  5. “States can’t do much to help, but they can do a lot to hurt.” Mr. Renn notes two states where statewide policies seem to make no difference: in Ohio, Columbus thrives while Cleveland falters, and down in Tennessee, Nashville grows while Memphis stagnates.

Mr. Renn notes one area of state policy that has had long-lasting implications, banking:

I think that historically states imposed rules on cities deliberately designed to hobble their growth. For example, the laws that restricted branch banking in most states until recently had the effect of keeping big city banks from buying up rural and small town banks around the state. The end game of course is that when deregulation occurred, the banks in most big cities were so small because of these rules, they were easy prey to out of state acquirers. Thus most states saw basically their entire indigenous banking industry swallowed up.

(I’ll note that my home state, North Carolina, got it right on this score: it had no such restrictions on intrastate banking, which allowed its homegrown banks, NCNB/NationsBank, First Union, and Wachovia, to become national behemoths. Though the crisis in the banking industry took its toll and today only one of those, Bank of America, the successor to NCNB and NationsBank, remains headquartered in the state today.)

Are states an anachronism? Personally, I don’t think so. Most of us still have a strong identity with what we consider our home state. At least, I know I do—even if I never live in North Carolina again, you’ll never scrape the tar off these heels. And I think they provide a necessary middle ground in American governance, balancing power not just across branches of government but across levels of government as well. From health care to the environment to infrastructure to education, there are plenty of examples of forward-thinking states blazing trails on progressive public policy when the federal government wasn’t up to the task and it was outside the scope of local government.

But the question leads to an interesting discussion, and undoubtedly we can come up with some fixes that will allow states to help more than they hurt.

Read more
Replay: Are States an Anachronism?
by Aaron Renn
The Urbanophile, 5 May 2014

The Georgia State Capitol against the backdrop of the Atlanta skyline.
by dgphilli via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0