Just a Thought – The Economics of Politics

 While the actress Sophie Tucker has faded into obscurity, one of her quotes surfaces fairly often; “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

The difficult fact of the matter is that you cannot serve in elected office in Culver City if you are not self-employed and/or independently wealthy. There are a few exceptions, but you’d better have the work ethic of a New England Puritan and the stamina of an Olympic athlete if you are putting in 40 hours a week on someone else’s time clock and still making sure you cover your end of city council affairs. Just look at the council members who have served over the last two decades. Not much middle management in those chairs, primarily because we don’t pay you to do it. I’ve listened to a number of ex-councilmembers complain and boast in the same breath about how much money they “lost” by spending their time in office.

 

When the 1974 council voted to give themselves the same benefits as the upper management in the city, there was no huge outcry in opposition.  Possibly because some kind of guilt from the citizens felt they should give the council something for their time and effort, or perhaps because it was done in an era where there was no national crisis over who gets health insurance and why. Now that the last downshift on the gears has cooled the council to the benefits only during the term served, there’s really nothing left to debate.

 

Yet the conversation continues.

 

I can admit that I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is easier, but not always better. When I was younger, I turned down a job promotion because it would have meant giving up my mornings walking the beach and my Wednesday night poetry workshop, for a sum that would not have made much of a difference. It was not about money, it was about the quality of my life. I wasn’t rich, but I counted myself as happy. Still, when I had to wait for my tax refund to get dental work done or borrow money to fix my car, I wondered if I’d made the right choice.

 

When I was very young, I once lived in a house with 15 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms and it’s own private lake. Interestingly, it was not any fun at all. My family was so scorned for our money and so isolated from the people around us we might as well have been on the dark side of the moon. When people decide you are wrong (or evil) just because you have money and they don’t, the conversation stops.

 

The other funny thing about the rich/poor notion is that people who long for wealth frequently despise the people that they think have it. Why be so angry and so disgusted with someone whose shoes you would want to step into? Would you really trade places, knowing that you are going to be so reviled ?

 

While I am passionate about the Occupy movement, and the need to make it possible for the citizens of our country to overthrow the corporate oligarchy, I’m not against wealth or those who hold it. They have the power to use their talents for the common good, because they can afford to do so; they do not have to spent their days making the rent. So, why not put them to work for us?

 

I was listening to an interview with Richard Branson, the creator of Virgin Records, Virgin Airways and dozens of other Virgin companies where he addressed the idea of creativity and social responsibility. “It’s great fun to solve ugly problems.” When you have a few billion dollars in assets, spending your time funding antiretroviral drugs for pregnant woman at risk of passing H.I.V. to their children is a very good thing to do with your time.

 

If you only have a couple million dollars, you could spend your time in meetings about public transportation, and green space, and parking, trying to make the place you live better for everyone who lives there. That could be a good thing to do with your time.

 

So, to paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been gainfully employed, and I’ve been gainfully unemployed. Sometimes, you take on a project that you know is not ever going to compensate you in dollars. But when your talents and your concerns move things in a better direction, everyone is better off. Whatever you get for that, it’s worth it.

 

 

www.culvercitysymphony.org

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, Judith. I don’t know if you meant it that way, but this is the best argument for Scott Malsin’s position that I’ve seen. Very thought-provoking.

  2. Good stuff, Judith. The fact that our council members (and school board members, for that matter), are not paid a reasonable amount for the time they provide, DOES make it next to impossible for the average person to hold these positions.

    It truly is unfortunate, because there are many talented people in our community who would do an excellent job as public servants. They just can’t afford to.

    I recently met a school board candidate for Pasco County, FL who says that school board members are paid the equivalent of an entry level teacher’s position. This enabled him to take a pay reduction at work (and a reduction in hours) to run for office and hopefully serve.

    A model similar to this would open the field up quite a bit, I believe.

  3. Thanks for this Judith. And I have to agree with both Sara & Dan as well. Good points all around!

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