Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cui bono?

The local Chicago Tribune franchised cheerleader for consumer capitalism, the Orlando Sentinel, today editorialized in favor of an incredibly short-sighted and greed driven proposed amendment to our state constitution, Amendment One. The proposed amendment will provide major tax breaks for the wealthy and the corporate interests at the same time it will effectively defund the state and local governments, hence drawing opposition from most cities and counties, government employees and educators.

At some level, the Sentinel's position is hardly surprising. Despite an apparent trend in the past few years away from its role as the voice of the knee jerk moralist conservatism of its earlier days as a Southern Baptist citrus and cow town, the Sentinel editorial staff usually rediscovers its true self on issues of wealth. This one is no exception. Clearly this sentinel stands guard for the vested interests of the wealthy.

In all fairness the editorial does make a good point - local government spending has, at times, been profligate. Ironically, the very people now pushing for more tax breaks have been the beneficiaries of that largesse. In recent years the city of Orlando has found ways to donate millions of dollars in new facilities to a professional basketball team and tax breaks to corporations hand over fist. Riding a crest of property taxes in part (but only in part - tourist taxes fill the local coffers more often than not), the city has felt quite liberal with its checkbook - depending upon where one falls in the economic hierarchy.

It's all occurred in the name of downtown development, a downtown which seems to have lots of room for condo construction and their yuppie tenants, but little room for the human flotsam and jetsam on our streets in the form of homeless people. Indeed, it's harder and harder to find a homeless person with the city's policies of rounding them up and getting them out of sight of drunken football fans and club goers (translation: people with money). Out of sight usually means pushing the homeless out of the downtown business and club district into the impoverished historically black neighborhoods on the other side of the interstate - and the tracks which historically have divided blacks and whites in southern cities.

As a city tax payer, I have questions about the wisdom of renovating aging stadiums and building new arenas for sports teams that don't expand seating for the general public but greatly expand luxury boxes for fat cats. There's nothing like a reverse Robin Hood effect in a consumerist capitalist economy to tell the middle and working class folks of a locale that they simply don't count much when it comes to city policy making. And if you're homeless, you're little more than an obstruction to "progress."

On the other hand, the city of Orlando has evidenced some rather enlightened behaviors on social issues ranging from an anti-discrimination policy regarding gays and lesbians to the recent appointment of a black female chief of police. The city has also spent a great deal on road improvements, traffic safety and beautification. Indeed, Orlando has one of the most beautiful downtown cores of any city in the country, a fact that is readily checked by simply traveling across the city line into developer beholden and thus largely unregulated Orange County with the gridlock traffic to show for it. For the most part, Orlando is a safe city for most of its citizens though last year's spike in murders in drug infested blighted neighborhoods, albeit many of them outside city limits, indicates the unevenness of the good life in the City Beautiful (as Orlando has long touted itself).

It's precisely that unevenness that makes today's editorial so self-revealing and so problematic. The final point in the editorial admits "Amendment 1 would not make Florida's tax system fairer. But if it forces local governments to spend more wisely, all Floridians will benefit." In other words, given the already unfair taxation system Florida maintains - an inequity which has increased radically over the past 10 years of Jeb and the Pubby Boys' control of the Florida lege and their willingness to shift the tax burden from those most able to pay to those least able to absorb the burden - adding additional benefits for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else simply exacerbates an already unjust system. Whether one finds expansion of an unfair system beneficial probably turns on where one falls in the current stack up. As the Romans would have asked, cui bono? - good for whom?

I guess it probably should not be surprising that the local media lap dog of the vested interests of our current status quo would editorialize in favor of yet another shift of tax burden from the top to the bottom and seek to legitimize it with the age old mantra of capitalism - helping the wealthy helps everyone. It's hardly an original pattern. As Charles E. Wilson, the former head of General Motors and Secretary of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 told a Senate subcommittee, "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country." Al Capp would transform Wilson in his Lil Abner comic strip into the caricature of General Bullmoose who was prone to say, "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA!" Capp realized it's easier to swallow the bitter pill of adults who know better behaving like selfish children when it's put into the form of comic parody.

Perhaps I remain a bit Pollyanish even into my middle age where according to conventional wisdom I'm supposed to know better but I do find myself hoping against hope that our local media will eventually grow up and assume a little more social responsibility, editorializing for all of its local citizens, not just the vested interests of the status quo. In the meantime, there is this little matter of a tyrannical ballot issue to campaign against. While I remain hopeful that at least the required 40% of Florida's voters will see the myopia (if not the injustice) in this exercise in greed and selfishness and defeat the amendment, after the 2000 election, I know anything is possible, even the aiding and abetting of the election of imbeciles to the presidency. (Mary Harris) Mother Jones said we should "pray for the dead and work like hell for the living." It's time to go to work for the future of our state bearing in mind the wisdom of one of our modern masters of irony, Mel Brooks: "Hope for the best. Expect the worst."

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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