Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Best of Intentions - Part Three"

Last one. I promise.

And I’ll keep it short. Yeah, like I know how long this is going to be. I haven’t written it yet! And I just made it longer telling you I’ll be keeping it short.


Let me be clear. When I talk about the “best of intention”, I’m not talking about the problems caused by unintended consequences – you know, like Prohibition, where they want people to stop drinking and they end up with Al Capone. I’m talking about a worthwhile idea that, over time, apathy, erosion and influence, deteriorates into something that’s completely different. And terrible.

The super wealthy who pay no taxes. Trial rules, where an effort to construct a fair an impartial jury transforms into a science for assembling a jury favorable to your side.

And now, the third example, one that’s familiar to the state of California, where it’s been most prominently promoted:

The Initiative System

Initiative. Referendum. Recall. They’re all elements of the same process. A process, by which propositions concerning important issues are included on the ballot and thus bypassing the state legislature, they are put to a popular vote.

Originally, the initiative process was a good and necessary idea. The government was so corrupt, it was passing laws exclusively benefiting the special interest, which had the state legislators in their pockets. A major culprit in the nineteenth century was Southern Pacific, dubbed by the Sacramento Bee, “The Octopus”, as they had their greedy tentacles wrapped around every decision-making institution.

The initiative alternative represented a reaction against the stranglehold of the powerful, an effort to inject democracy into the democratic process. Propositions would be offered on the major issues of the day, and everyone got to vote on them.

Here are some of the more recent examples:

An initiative that would lower property taxes. The recall of a judge who opposed capital punishment. A proposition about offshore oil drilling. And, most recently, a referendum on gay marriage.

Originally, the initiative process made sense. When gobs of money didn’t unlevel the playing field, and the primary medium was word of mouth. But now, things are different.

Today, most voters learn about the initiatives from TV commercials. The commercials cost millions to produce and air. Not everybody has millions. So not everybody has an equal opportunity to promote their views on television. Where most people learn about the initiatives.

Because, for some reason, political commercials are exempt from the “truth in advertising” restrictions applied to commercials touting products – you can’t say Tylenol cures cancer – commercials for the propositions can present their arguments pretty much any way they want.

And boy, do they.

“Proposition 13” (1978) presented a commercial showing an old couple being thrown into the street, because they couldn’t pay their property taxes, when the most prominent beneficiaries of property tax reduction were, in fact, the major real estate interests. Despite that fact, there were no commercials presented, where someone looked directly into the camera and said:

“Hi. I buy buildings for personal enrichment. The current property tax formula takes a big bite out of my profits. Please vote for “Proposition 13”, so I can make and keep more of my money. Thank you.”

You didn’t see that commercial. You only saw old people wondering where they were going to live.

Remember this commercial promoting the initiative for offshore oil drilling?

“Onshore oil drilling has been very rewarding, by which I mean our company and its shareholders have gotten extremely wealthy. But we’re running out of places on land to drill. It’s time to drill in water. If you want to stop buying oil from foreign countries, many of which would like to blow us up, please vote to allow us to drill offshore. We promise we will meet the oil demands of this country, and at minimal cost – the destruction of wildlife and vegetation, and a really ugly view.”

You don’t remember that commercial? Oh, yeah. They didn’t do it.

Gay Marriage

A couple, looking like the direct descendents of The Brady Bunch parents, agonize that allowing gay marriage will require teachers to explain same-sex marriage to Kindergarten students. That’s the commercial the opponents of gay marriage brought us. What the commercial didn’t say was that the anti-gay-marriage initiative was bankrolled primarily by Mormons. Why didn’t we see that commercial?

“Hi. We’re wealthy Mormons. And we oppose gay marriage. I know we’re not from California, and we that have some pretty weird ideas about marriage ourselves, but so what? We hate gay marriage, and we’re standing up for our beliefs.”

Well, no, actually. They’re trotting out Mike and Carol Brady to stand up for their beliefs.

Super-rich real estate developers. (Check out how many of them own basketball teams.) Oil companies. Deep-pocketed interest groups. Hm. Who does that remind me of? Oh, year. I remember.

These are the guys they created the initiative process to get away from.

And now, they’re running the show.

I heard a story about a guy who got his foot caught in one of the guide ropes of a hot air balloon. His final words as he was lofted into the distance were,

“What do I do now, Larry?”

When it comes to good intentions gone horribly bad, I feel a little bit like that guy.

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