by Lucas O’Connor/ Two Cathedrals / January 9, 2012
It was a story that nobody cared much about at first — the Mayor had ignored legal advice from the City Attorney, allowing Qualcomm to temporarily re-name the stadium and its signage without paying what contracts would normally dictate. But the Mayor issued a statement dripping in condescension, giving the kerfluffle a new, stronger second life. When the Mayor declared that the gift of public money to a rich corporation “was for the greater good of our community,” it revealed more than any of us might have liked about whether anyone’s drawing a distinction anymore between the ‘greater good of our community’ and corporate handouts.
First, it’s important to put this in the right conceptual context. It isn’t Qualcomm’s money that the Mayor decided it should keep. Rather, it’s the public’s money that Mayor Sanders unilaterally decided to present as a gift to Qualcomm. The theoretical debate would be no different than if the Mayor decided that Qualcomm employees have license to take books from the library to add to their personal collection. Or decided to reassign SDPD officers as a round-the-clock security detail for Qualcomm board members. Or gave Irwin Jacobs a fire truck.
Maybe we would still have the same arguments that Qualcomm has earned the right to take the public’s money by virtue of being a good corporate citizen. But the underpinning of this argument is perhaps even more distressing, because it skips over the question of whether it’s possible to buy immunity from the law in San Diego and instead goes straight to how much does it cost in San Diego to live outside the law? And besides, at a time when our public discourse is focused on demonizing teachers and public servants for daring to flirt with earning a middle-class income, is it really credible to say Qualcomm deserves a reward for not acting like Walmart? Maybe in San Diego it’s to be expected, but that doesn’t mean it makes much sense.
In the meantime, the situation again underlines one of the primary dangers of relying on the magnanimity of private funders to keep government functional. No matter the good intentions of those involved, it can’t help but reach this point quickly. Private government simply requires a different standard for decision making, and sets a different definition of the ‘greater good.’ When private money is so directly vital, the concentration of wealth does perversely become the greater good, at least for the government.
Governments are accountable to those who create and perpetuate them. If it’s the working and middle classes, then the ‘greater good’ is defined for the government as the greater good of those communities. But when an ever-tightening circle of rich corporations and philanthropists become the support system, it’s their greater good that government must consider, at least for self-preservation. It’s understandable — natural even — but it isn’t sustainable, or in any sense supportive of the “greater good of the community.”
But here we are. Between this, the Jacobs plan for Balboa Park, the Convention Center expansion, and the spectre of a new Chargers stadium, Mayor Sanders has very clearly defined his definition of “greater good of the community” for his lame duck year. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s all about the public underwriting the plans of rich private sector players who get insulated from public accountability for their trouble of cashing the check. Meet the old boss.