City Hall

Please Don't Kill the Nanny State Yet, at Least Not in Dallas. We Need Our Nanny.

When does escaping from the nanny state become an escape from sanity? Ted Cruz is urging New Hampshire Yankees not to be, in his inimical words, “coddled by a bunch of nanny-state liberals who want to control every aspect of your life, or die.” What if they need a nanny? And what does it tell us about a person that he is so bitterly anti-nanny?

The Republican anti-nanny movement came to mind at the end of last week when I got off the phone with Trinity River Expeditions canoe guide Charles Allen. Before I called, he had just finished dealing with a couple of teenage clients.

“I couldn’t tell them what do,” he told me. “They said, ‘No, we know what we’re doing.’ They dumped their boat and weren’t wearing the life jackets.”

He was still steamed. “Sometimes somebody needs to tell you what to do, and sometimes you need to listen to them about really important stuff.”

Actually we didn’t start off talking about teenagers needing strong parent figures. We had started out talking about Dallas City Hall needing a strong parent figure.

I told Allen, who is probably the most knowledgeable person about the river in Dallas, that Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has been saying City Hall should go to Congress and lobby for another round of exceptions, this time to exempt the Trinity River from federal law on navigability.

Having already won significant exemptions from federal wildlife and historic site protections for the river, Rawlings is now telling WFAA-Channel 8 News  he’d like to see the river exempted from basic federal standards regarding the ability to get up and down it in canoes and small motor boats.

That’s because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is finally fed up with the city’s Stupid White Water Feature (SWWF), a fake concrete “rapids” built like a theme-park ride in the river five years ago at a cost of $4 million. The SWWF was so badly built it had to be closed to navigation the same day it was unveiled. The phrase that leaps to mind is epic fail.

For five years the city has done nothing about it, allowing it to sit out there as a barrier to the canoers and fishermen who used to be able to go up and down that part of the river. In recent weeks, the Corps, whose historic role is to police and maintain the navigability of American waterways, has finally told the city to either fix the thing (probably impossible) or tear it out (expensive and embarrassing).

I told Allen on the phone at the end of the week that the response of the city staff, with support from the mayor, was to say we should go to Washington again and talk some friendly North Texas congress-persons into passing another little special law for the Trinity. This time the new Dallas-only law would say that Dallas doesn’t need no stinking navigation rules and the Trinity is hereby exempted from them.
So if Dallas can really make something like that happen — as it has been able to do in the past — would that be an escape from being “coddled by a bunch of nanny-state liberals who want to control every aspect of your life?” Or would it be more like the behavior of defiant idiot teenagers refusing to wear life jackets and then dumping their boat over in the middle of the river?

Allen hadn’t heard yet about the mayor’s idea for eliminating navigation standards on the river. He was aghast. Stripping away even more federal protections, he said, can only open the way for even bigger mistakes.

“When you come to much bigger projects, are they going to be more careful?” he asked. “I don’t think so. It’s crazy to keep eliminating federal oversight over things that the local government can’t handle. The city of Dallas has proven that it doesn’t understand navigation. It doesn’t understand the river.”

Indeed, in the chain of emails I saw last week in which city staffers were pushing the idea of a congressional end-run, not one mention was made of the domino-effect such a measure could have on the quality and value of the river itself as a recreational resource, probably because no one at City Hall even knows how that works.

The West Fork of the Trinity River northwest of Fort Worth, for example, has been officially designated as a recreational resource by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The main stem of the Trinity through Dallas has not been but easily could be, given the amount of canoeing and boating common on the main stem.

When a river or stream in Texas is designated as recreational, the environmental standards are automatically bumped up a notch. The river must achieve a higher score on tests for E-coli and other contaminants or local authorities must take steps to improve the score.

Isn’t the idea of an end-run to Congress because we got caught breaking the law just a little too Ethan Couch-y?

tweet this
Those requirements are state law, but they are compatible with parallel federal regulations. Taking a meat-axe to the federal regulations governing navigability on the river, exempting it from national standards that date from the earliest days of the republic, could push overall regulation of the river in exactly the wrong direction, away from the higher standards required to make it a more valuable recreational resource.

And anyway, isn’t the idea of an end-run to Congress because we got caught breaking the law just a little too Ethan Couch-y? Remember when the Couch kid got caught driving his father’s vehicle to school two years before he was old enough to be a licensed driver? When the head of the school called his father, the father threatened to buy the school. So even if Dallas can buy the North Texas congressional delegation, does that make it the right thing to do?

Allen said to me, “It has taken the federal government five years to actually get the City Council to wake up and take notice of something that has been sitting there as a safety hazard for five years. We need the federal government to come in here and straighten things out that we just cannot do ourselves.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “As individuals we can understand this is important or that’s important. But as a city and a society, we’re not able to do that. We haven’t grown up enough to be able to take care of ourselves.

“We can’t act like teenagers that don’t want the parents telling them what to do. I just had a couple of girls like that over on the West Fork.

“That’s what the city of Dallas is like. They’re like teenagers. Damn. You need some parents called the federal government to come in and say, ‘OK, you need to make your bed and get up on time. There are things you have to do.’ This is crazy. It’s like we are trying to emancipate ourselves from our parents.”

It was that last line that made me think of Ted Cruz and the Anti-Nanny Cruz-ade. No, we don’t need to be told what to do by the nanny, if we have all grown up. But if we haven’t yet, if we still have a lot of notable exceptions to the maturity rule among us, maybe we shouldn’t throw the nanny out with the bathwater just yet.

It’s hard to imagine a realistic social arrangement that could offer people any more liberty than we already enjoy in this country. For one thing, we elect our nannies. Our nannies have to audition in front of us before we ever agree to be nannied by them. Then we pass exhaustive rules strictly limiting what they can and cannot nanny us about. So what does it say about us if we still can’t live up to even that arrangement?

It’s like this. The nanny comes to me. She says, “Now, Jimmy, you’re not old enough to be driving the car. You have blocked navigation of the driveway with the car. The car appears to be wrecked. There are empty bottles of your father’s best Champagne all over the lawn. And the gardener tells me there is a young girl in the rose garden passed out in a state of semi-undress.”

So what should I do? Should I take out my phone and dial a lobbyist? Should I tell the lobbyist that I am being coddled by a bunch of nanny-state liberals who want to control every aspect of my life?

And let me say this at this point: I do not want to be horse-whipped. Even with the car, the girl, the bottles, the driveway navigation, yeah, I still don’t want to be horse-whipped, because I am against horse-whipping, especially of me. I don’t think the city of Dallas should be horse-whipped over the SWWF, either, necessarily.

But I do think this reflex of seeking a way to buy ourselves out of the law is exactly what Allen says it is — the reaction of spoiled teenagers who just don’t want to be told what to do.

In 1998 the sponsors of the project to rebuild the entire Trinity River waterfront through downtown sold the bond program to voters primarily as a recreational project with all sorts of man-made sailboat lakes and endless loop kayaking circuits. We realize by now that most of that stuff was never possible and we were suckered.

But now the mayor and staff are blithely setting about gutting the basic underpinning of law that would make it possible for the river itself to become a valued recreational resource in the future.

I look at this and at some of the disassembling of basic social and environmental protections being proposed at the national level, and I not only want to keep the nannies. I want open-carry for the nannies.