Washington, D.C.: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended that Americans trash the products of ice-cream manufacturers Ben and Jerry. The sneering Ashcroft condemned the severe summer price increases of the cool confection, including his former favorite, Chunky Monkey. The Attorney General laughed off any relationship of this guerilla warfare on ice cream to the Vermont liberal activists' Senator, James Jeffords, who recently defected from the Republican Party. "But," he warned, "my old singing senator buddy had better know what those specks in that Cherry Garcia really are."
Not a single word of the previous paragraph about Ashcroft is true. The suggestion that the nation's chief law enforcement officer would say anything like this would rightly lead to his firing.
But California's Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, has in fact made an even more outrageous recommendation: That the head of an energy trading company be imprisoned--no charge specified — and that he be subjected to homosexual rape. Lockyer declared, "I would love to personally escort [the energy executive] to [a] cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'" Presumably a female corporate head of an industry ill-favored by those in power — such as tobacco, alcohol, entertainment, or energy — might have to endure the same depraved treatment, so that Lockyer-style justice might be done.
Yet this is not the first expression of lynch mob attitude from California officials concerning the energy crisis. After all, Governor Gray Davis even proposed seizing the utilities unless they averted price increases. What distinguishes this policy from mob behavior? Why should anyone outside government respect the law, if those inside it don't? How did this attitude come to be? Why is it tolerated?
One explanation of our indifference to lawlessness in public office is our toleration of similar actions in our own communities. Consider a routine activity engaged in by local government, known as redevelopment. Like the national government using emergency powers originating in wartime, local governments have made what was originally a health and safety measure a routine tool of policy. Spuriously claiming to be acting in the public interest, cities and counties have been reorganizing their communities under the guise of eliminating "blight." In fact, acting as the "redevelopment agency," a city council condemns parts of their community and then makes sweetheart deals encouraging well-connected business interests move in. The redevelopment agency then reconvenes as the city council to ratify their previous action.
One should not be fooled by this attempt to create an aura of legitimacy. Although couched in pro-business rhetoric, this is a government in the shadows ruling for the benefit of a few selected businesses, which are blessed by the redevelopment agency through, for example, favorable infrastructure agreements. Perhaps the most blatant example of the redevelopment ethic is the taxpayer subsidies granted to professional sports teams; the most striking sign the auto-malls that line southern California highways.
Cities are eager to engage in this practice because of the promise of increased tax revenues stemming from the new, tax-generating businesses arising where low-income housing or modest businesses once stood. Now the city has more money — or it hopes to — for its own budget. Everyone is better off, supposedly, except for the often voiceless people who are told they are living in a blighted area and must move — somewhere — and the taxpayers who foot the bill for the new business subsidy. Thus is created an insidious alliance between some in business and the government, corrupting what both sectors should offer to the community as a whole.
The dean of California political journalism, Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, periodically warns of the scandal inherent in the practice. The liberal Public Policy Institute of California has published studies showing the policy to be more full of promises than of actual economic benefit. Yet the desire to redevelop grows, as government and businesses collude to promote its vain promise.
A continuity exists between the recent provocations on the electricity industry by California's Governor and Attorney General and the ordinary practices of local government. That is the dark secret their recent extremism masks. Might contracts with real-life Sopranos or street gangs be the next instrument of governance for the Golden State?