Should We Regulate Cities?

Indicted Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo

I can’t help thinking what the “deregulation contingent” of political thinkers would do about the situation in Bell, California, where a corrupt city council, in collusion with a city manager accused of criminal activity, raped the treasury of millions of dollars by paying themselves excessive salaries, sometimes for meetings that lasted only a few minutes.

While most city managers are hard-working, dedicated civil servants who earn upper-middle class wages in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 per year, the guy in Bell was “earning” more than a million, including benefits — and Bell is a small city! Four of the five city council members were “earning” more than $100,000 annually — for part-time jobs.

Now, if we’re going to deregulate multi-billion dollar companies, as the capitalist purists would have us do, then philosophically we also have to deregulate cities. I can hear some people favoring this strategy already — let the citizens patrol their own elected officials and vote them out of office if necessary! And let the elected officials supervise the city employees.

OK, that might work in a perfect world, where people are reasonably honest (if not always intelligent or guided by true public service) and information is available to those who attempt to monitor events. But more and more, we see that such a world eludes us.

Take the banks, for example. First they (and other mortgage companies) screwed members of the lower-middle class by putting them into unaffordable loans guaranteed to fail, in order to make short-term profits. After that little fiasco just about brought the country to its financial knees, we discover that some of the same institutions are now foreclosing without paying any attention to proper procedures — once again, in the headlong rush to make money. These are the companies we are supposed to trust to regulate themselves?

No, self-interest is a powerful motivator, in the public sector (unfortunately) as well as in the private sector. The founders understood this clearly, by the way — in a vastly more sophisticated fashion than today’s Tea Party members and other deregulatory proponents. At a minimum, we need reporting rules so that enterprising citizens (and fortunately, media outlets like the Los Angeles Times that still perform the valuable service of investigative reporting) can legally demand information that people in charge would rather hide. And yes, reporting is one form of regulation. Without that essential element, we might as well not have laws, because public interest organizations would be hamstrung in their ability to identify and expose malfeasance.

For whom does the regulation Bell toll? It tolls for all of us. Because if the capitalist system that thrives on self-interest were “free” to operate unfettered, corruption would be even more widespread than it is now.

Ron Wolff


  1. Ryder says

    The excuse: “There are simply too many issues… not enough time.”

    The average amount of time Americans watch TV (over the age of 2) is about 4 and a half hours per day. Surfing the web? 2 hours a day.

    Sorry. Our choices to do other, less important things, is a part of the apathy.

    And I can guarantee you that if people don’t have the time to participate in a republican type of government, there is no possible way they can participate in a “reasoning democracy”.

    You think it was easy to vote in 1860? Well, somehow 70%-80% of Americans voted… today, with absentee and early voting and assistance that wasn’t available 150 years ago… we’re now voting about 50% in national elections.

    I suspect that we’re doing even WORSE in local elections.

    Consider: 2.5 billion text messages are sent EVERY DAY in the US, which is all basically drivel, stupid communication… mindless banter. “what r u doing?” “nothing. Bored.”

    No excuse for it.

  2. says

    As the article points out, ‘at a minimum’ we need regulations and reporting.

    Contra above commenter, regs do not serve mainly, if at all, as the result of (or even as the excuse for) ‘apathy’. Quite the contrary, as explained in the article, they can be a tool to aid the watchful citizen.

    Anyhow, our failure or inability to spend a lot of time paying attention to one or another issue or action, of government or of corporations, does NOT equate to our alleged ‘apathy’. There are simply too many issues and actions, and too little time. That’s why even (indeed especially) the least apathetic and most engaged of us can benefit from regs, from reporting, and indeed from activities of various issue-by-issue heedful citizen groups.

    The above commenter is half-right in one respect. Regs are only PART of the answer. A more satisfying answer, to reduce abuse of power and corruption, will call also for ensuring more systematically that the number of citizens mobilized to watchfully heed the making and execution of public decisions is more closely matched to the number of decisions to be made. That calls in my opinion for moving our public-policy and law-making decision system away from a republic – where the many citizens, using popularity-contest mass elections, hand off all decision power for extended time to a few officers – professional politicians and appointees. Instead we must decentralize power and move toward a reasoning democracy, where decisions (and their review) are distributed among many deliberating teams (alias ‘juries’) of ordinary citizens.

    The larger our population and the more complex our society and economy, the more we need to break out of the obsolete 3-centuries-old mold of a republican government and move to reasoning democracy.

  3. Ryder says

    What would they do?

    Aaahhhhhh. Probably start something, I dunno… Like a movement based on the Boston tea party, and then get rid of the bums.

    Oh, wait… They’re doing that already.

    We get the government we deserve. Regulation is the result of apathy… And tries to replace the watchful citizen, lulling them into complacency.

    Become apathetic at your own peril.

    The fact that the slob above is being led away in cuffs is proof that some people aren’t apathetic, and don’t need regulations to get things done.

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