Mr. Potter is Winning, Still

(My perennial Christmas Missive, loyal reader.  And yes, the Potters of the world are still ahead in the game of life.  With the election of George Barack Obama Bailey, however,  by next year this holiday time, for the first time in a generation, the Potters may be on the defensive.  Let us raise a voice of prayer and a glass of cheer to the prospect.)

 

I watched the perennial holiday chestnut, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the other day. There was George Bailey, as he is every year, struggling to keep the old Savings and Loan afloat. There was the malicious Mr. Potter, a truly covetous old sinner, trying to put Bailey out of business.  There was Clarence the angel showing, once again, that our world is a better place for the George Bailey’s amongst us.  It’s too bad that in today’s world the Potters are beating the Baileys, hands down.

 

Old man Potter dismissed the Bailey Savings and Loan as a kind of privatized social welfare program for dumb poor workers who couldn’t cut it on their own. “And what does that  get us,” he asked?  “A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.  And all because a few starry eyed dreamers stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas? Don’t the  Rush Limbaughs or Tom Delays say the same thing today?  

 

Labor laws, social welfare, retirement benefits, guaranteed healthcare, workplace safety laws, consumer protection–all are dismissed by our modern Potters as so much misplaced sympathy offered to the undeserving by the foolishly starry eyed, thinking that is at best naïve and at worst dangerous.  Any mention of social welfare on AM radio is now associated with Bolshevik Socialism – want to give workers a guaranteed living wage or put any limits at all on the worst excesses of the market and you’re labeled as an advocate of Gulags and death camps.

 

George, of course, argued back.  “Just remember this, Mr. Potter,” he retorted, “that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.  Well is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”  Today he could add: is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die with decent healthcare, affordable housing, quality education for their kids and the sure knowledge that when old age comes, there will be some comforts to look forward to?

 

We don’t have that many George Bailey’s today. Few stand up to our Potters when they tell us workers can’t expect job security, no one is entitled to healthcare and decent pay is whatever the most desperate amongst us is willing to work for.  Even the Democrats, the party of dreams for the working stiff, have fallen in line with the rhetoric of balanced budgets and smaller government (except, of course, if deficits are required to provide tax cuts to the richest Americans) even if the cost are reduced programs to help the disadvantaged.

 

Can’t anyone makes the simple point George made that helping the least amongst us is not simple altruism, it is Capitalist self interest at it’s best? “Your all business men here,” he reminded the S&L board members thinking of supporting Potter, “don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”  Heck, wasn’t it that old socialist Henry Ford’s idea to raise worker pay, not because it was the moral thing to do but because it made them better participants in the Capitalist market place?   Like Old Man Potter, much of American corporate business has become warped and frustrated by ruthless competition and now sees its workers only as cattle to be milked for as long as possible before being sent to the layoff slaughterhouse. 

 

Frank Capra understood that the Potters amongst us seldom lose, though the more public-minded like old George could, on occasion, battle them to a draw. Notice that, while George Bailey ultimately survived his battle with Potter, the old man survived unscathed too, his own crime of theft of the Bailey’s deposits unpunished. There have always been the Potters amongst us, those who pursue personal gain at any cost, be they a grasping banker like fictitious  Potter or the greedy executives of a massive corporations like Enron or WorldCom. What’s regrettable is that there are fewer and fewer George Bailey’s speaking up for the little guy.

 

In the real world the Bailey S&L would have been bought out by the 1980s by PotterCorp, a huge transnational Financial Services leviathan. A PotterCorp holding company would have bought out Bedford Fall’s chief industry, the plastic’s factory old Hee-Haw Sam Wainwright had built at George’s urging and shipped the jobs to Third World sweatshops. Downtown Bedford Falls would now be a ghost town with shops shuttered by a massive PotterMart selling cheap slave-labor produced products to the town’s poorly paid service employees.   Yes, least be there any doubt, in the world of today Mister Potter would have won. 

And, least there be any doubt, Mr. Potter voted Republican.

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In Lieu of Flowers

From Today’s Hard Copy of City Beat

A Eulogy For Mike Aguirre

True to my prediction of four years ago, Mike Aguirre has become San Diego’s version of the mad Florentine monk Savaranola: having incited the locals to burn down the downtown power establishment he finds himself instead burned at the political stake.  His legion of detractors, however, from the editorial and blogger  pages of the UT to the front office of the Chargers to the halls of City Hall right to Jerry Sanders himself might well find they will  ultimately rue the day of Mad Mike’s fall.  For now whom will they blame their many failings on?

No longer having Aguirre to kick around, Gentlemen Jerry and the City Council may also find that the only thing that’s kept the political peace in San Diego for the last four years was their  shared fear and loathing of Mike.  Sanders first tried to triangulate with Aguirre against the council, then teamed up with the council against Aguirre. With Mike gone and all the financial problems hanging over the city, watch the mayor and council turn on each other like rabid and ravenous professional politicians.

Let us not underestimate or minimize the degree to which Mike mauled himself. By most accounts Mike’s management of City Attorney’s office was closer to Humprhey Bogart’s helmanship in the Caine Mutiny than E.G. Marshall’s stewardship in The Defenders His inability to focus on any one project long enough to see it to completion, whether it be run-of-the-mill civil litigation or major investigations left him long on rhetoric but short on accomplishment.

Meanwhile the promised centerpiece of his litigation empire—the lawsuit to roll back pension benefits– only served to alienate Aguirre from what could have been a political alliance with the municipal unions and gave the UT with millions of dollars in ‘wasted money” to shoot at him with.  That Jerry Sander’s said the lawsuits  needed to proceed and be resolved  before he could take any actions to solve the pension problem somehow has gotten deleted from the pension narrative.  With Jan  Goldsmith ready to drop the litigation, the UT’s question should be:  So what’s the new pension plan, your Mayorship? Instead, no doubt, the paper of record will congratulate Goldsmith for saving millions of dollars by dropping litigation aimed at saving hundreds of millions.   Se la vie.

And then there was Mike himself.  Or, specifically, Mike’s mouth.

Mike seemed to have reinterpreted Thumper’s Mother’s advice to be “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, go out of your way to kick them as many times as you can.” Mike was San Diego’s little boy who cried corruption so often that, even when corruption seemed to be evident (can you say Pensiongate?  Sunroadgate?) the press and much of the public rolled their collective eyes and said, “There he goes again.”   What Mike forgot was the Occam’s razor of municipal government: never claim corruption and conspiracy when simple incompetence will suffice.

Aguirre actually had a higher view of the city’s leaders than most common folk did.  Presented with the incredible screwups on every thing from sewer systems to development deals, most San Diegans simply threw up their hands and said, “What d’ya expect from those clowns.”  Aguirre was actually charitable enough to assume that city officials—both elected and appointed—where smart enough to know what they were doing and that screwups where actually intentional subversions of the public good.  His constant maligning of multiple malificient muncipal malefactors, however, eventually fell flat in the face of the depressingly low level of competence San Diegan’s have come to expect from their municipality.

Yet the real irony in the case of Mike Aguirre was that, no matter how flawed the messenger may have been, his fundamental message—that the city was heading towards, be it by incompetence, corruption or cowardice, a fiscal Armageddon and no one on the council (with the exception of Darling Donna Frye)  or the Mayor’s office was willing to even so much as admit how bad things were let alone take proactive steps to head off disaster–was  quite correct. Indeed, Mike is even more correct about the state of the city leaving office in defeat than when he entered it in victory.

Between 2000 and 2004 the city became the municipal version of the Titanic, slamming full speed into the pension fund debacle.  Over the last four years, under the stalwart stewardsip of two mayors, two acting mayor and scads of City Managers and CFOs,  the city backed up and then slammed full speed ahead into that iceberg again. And again. This time the ship might finally sink.

As Aguirre recently claimed (and Dan Bauder reiterated in last week’s Reader)  the pension fund deficit, around a billion  and a half dollars when Mad Mike came into office, is probably closer to THREE billion today.  Back in 2004 the City was in the middle of good times with the markets and tax revenues on the rise.  Today the City, like the rest of the country—and the world—is in a recession heading towards depression. Which means any hope of riding this out without making major—and painful—cuts are simply delusions or deceits.

The city council might want to hold off voting to ban plastic shopping bags. What will hundreds of city employees put the contents of their desks into when they are, let us say, sent on extended permanent furlough (what shall they call “firing you”? Let them count the ways…) once the full financial plight of the City is realized? Keep a few branch libraries from closing?  By this time next year the Council may be selling the library’s books on E-bay for spare cash and wondering how to keep at least a few police stations open. Citizen Aguirre thus leaves office as he came in,  with the name of his cherished boyhood sled “Bankruptcy” on his lips.

That Mike Aguirre leaves shallow footprints on city politics is in part due to his own personal failings but more because so many of the city’s movers and shakers worked so hard to brush him away.   His attempt to turn the City Attorney’s office into something of a Tribune of the People is now being rolled back, much to the relief of the city establishment. Safely ensconced at last in his new City Attorney digs, Landslide” Jan Goldsmith is ready, true to his word, to take the office back to the halcyon days of  Casey “Pension underfunding? Sure we can do pension underfunding”  Gwinn.

Just how will Ferret Man Jan deal with the next Sunroad? Or the next (as in current) pension under funding scheme?  Will Goldsmith continue any of Aguirre’s Quixotic adventures, like efforts to force Kinder Morgan, the corporation that owns the tank farms by the stadium, to finally make good on its legal responsibility to clean up the Mission Valley aquifer  contaminated in a fuel spill twenty years ago? Given that Goldsmith campaigned on the platform of turn the City Attorney’s office back into the legal mouthpiece of the mayor and council, one can only imagine the answer.

Meanwhile the changing of the guard at 202 C Street is now complete.  In addition to Aguirre’s agonosites,  the last four members of the City Council’s gang of seven (the gang that voted the city into its current fiscal failures starting in 2000) have been turned out as well, though, in these cases, by term limits and not voter vindictiveness.

And thus it’s a final irony that, with the exception of Dick Murphy (who cheated a public recall hanging by his own political suicide) Mike Aguirre is the only elected San Diego official since to pay any price for a lack of success in public office is recent memory. (And how many people DID get fired over that little Sunroad flap?  Ah ha.  Thought so.)  Scott Peters is off to his cozy sinecure on the Port Commission, a going away present from his former council buddies. The troika of Atkins,  Maienschein and Madaffer may be, as yet, unspecific about life post-council but we should all sleep well at night knowing that there’s probably a nice public sinecure or private partnership awaiting them somewhere.  Jerry Sanders,  meanwhile, having coasted to easy reelection can now hear, wafting whispers of his name on the lips of Republicans desperate to find some one to run for governor in 2010.

Only Mike Aguirre comes out of this miserably mauled.  But take heart Mikey. Your principal public antagonist, the UT, is on the sales block.  And your political antagonists like Peters and Sanders may well see their political shelf-lives shrink to that of overripe mangoes given the financial fury facing the city.  Indeed, it is unfortunately possible—and not for your lack of warnings–that your dourest predictions of municipal collapse might yet come true.  Like the mad monk Savaronola ranting against the corruption of the  De Medici’s, you may end up vindicated in the end.

And the citizen’s of San Diego may find themselves saying a few years—or months—if only we’d listened to that obnoxious Mike Aguirre.