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Sunday, January 23, 2022

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News + PoliticsWhy corruption matters

Why corruption matters

The sleaze at City Hall undermines public faith in government -- at a time when the future of humanity depends on it.

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The latest round of the evolving City Hall scandal doesn’t involve massive embezzlement. It doesn’t involve public employees pocketing public money. The cash amounts involved in the alleged bribery are in the thousands of dollars, not even the tens of thousands of dollars.

And of course, nothing has been proven in court.

Mohammed Nuru and Harlan Kelly were part of the “city family.”

But this ongoing culture of corruption is making me sick.

I was on a radio show years ago with Willie Brown, after he was out of office, and comedian Will Durst, and the set was in a hotel on the waterfront, and there was a new piece of public art out the window that apparently some folks were upset about, since it had been placed there with no public process.

“That looks like something I would have done,” Brown said with a big smile. Laughs all around.

The message: When Brown was mayor, he didn’t care about the rules – he did what he wanted to do, just to get thing he wanted done, and now we can all joke about it.

But it’s not funny.

Here’s the thing: One of the reasons our society is so badly messed up right now is that a whole lot of people have no faith in government. They don’t believe that government is a solution; they think it’s a problem. That’s how Ronald Reagan got elected, and we are still suffering from that hangover – it’s the entire basis of the Trump Phenomenon.

But we are facing two existential crises right now – climate change and economic inequality, and they are directly connected.

If we can’t solve the climate crisis, humanity could go extinct. And there is no way to solve that without government action. We can all drive electric cars and stop eating meat and travel less and buy less plastic crap and ban natural gas in new housing and ride our bikes and do so many other things that are so important – but in reality, individual action isn’t going to be anywhere near enough. Not in the US, not in the world.

This crisis requires collective action, meaning regulations, standards, and enforceable rules that require not only individuals but big corporations to change the way they operate.

It will require governments around the world, starting with the US, to say: We can’t live like this anymore. It will require a Green New Deal and a lot more.

We collectively can do this without putting people out of work and without economic damage. But we can’t do it without government.

Meanwhile, the level of economic inequality in the US (and other parts of the world) is already creating massive social unrest. It’s unsustainable; our economic (and political) systems can’t survive if we keep going in this direction.

The person who best understands and explains this is Thomas Picketty, the brilliant French economist. His book, Capital in the 21st Century, makes clear that all of the neo-liberal and conservative ideas – including investing in education and training for the “jobs of the future” – are nowhere near enough to stave off disaster. The only thing – the ONLY THING – that will work is taxing great wealth.

That means governments around the globe acting to take money away from the very rich, most of whom make their money not by working but by leveraging their wealth to create more wealth, and redistributing it to the rest of society (so, for example, people who work in oil fields and coal mines can maintain their standard of living after we shut down those industries).

And the only way either of these things can happen, and my kids can live in a stable, habitable world, is if most of us are willing to believe in government.

Right now, I look around at people I know and they say: Government is corrupt. Look at Mohammed Nuru. Look at Harlan Kelly. Look at how easy it’s been for people with big money and connections to game the system in San Francisco.

And look at how long this has been going on, and how nobody in the Mayor’s Office has done anything about it.

What do the major players here have in common? They were appointed to their jobs by Willie Brown or Ed Lee, who was appointed to his job by Willie Brown.

(Oh, and look at the mayor and the governor having a fancy meal at a restaurant none of the rest of us could afford when we are all supposed to stay at home. It’s not the $350 dinner. It’s the message.)

If Mayor London Breed knew about how her friends and political allies were operating, and looked the other way, then she was at worst encouraging it and at best enabling it. If she didn’t know anything, that’s a massive management failure.

Nobody in the mainstream news media or the political world has yet called her on that. I get it – the mayor and the supes and everyone else is busy trying to keep the residents of SF alive during COVID. But at some point, someone has to ask the question:

How many members of the “city family” knew about or should have known about this, and when are they going to be accountable? When are we all going to say that all this corruption, even if it seems small-time,  matters – big time – because it destroys the faith in government that is critical to our future as a species and our ability to avoid economic collapse?

Or are we all just going to do business as usual, again?

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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