Shadow Government #60

Shadow Government #60

Public lust

by John A. Jackson

For a column committed to the most far-reaching social change, Shadow Government can be astonishingly respectable: honoring mom, apple pie, and government service, for instance.

You will not read here that all politicians are crooks or that democratic efforts are futile. If you actually watch local governments at work, as I have for 32 years, you will discover a wide range of abilities and opinions; you will very seldom find out-and-out evil. You will see hard, honest work, and even dedication.

More often than not, when you go to vote, you even feel good about it.

That reportorial bias on my part is the major reason why John Balzar's column in Sunday's Los Angeles Times hit me so hard.

The column's main thrust was that two prominent California Democrats, both already rich, used the energy providers' rape of California to enrich themselves further. The two made large and highly profitable investments in the very corporations they denounced in Congress.

Balzar's targets were Senator Barbara Boxer and the South Bay's own Rep. Jane Harman.

According to her financial disclosure statements, Harman's investments included about $250,000 worth of Enron, the mammoth energy company run by a close friend of President Bush. One of Boxer's investments was in Duke Energy Corp., which Balzar described as "another of those bloodthirsty bad guys from the South."

In an apparent attempt to clear her name, Boxer sold off her energy stocks a few weeks ago-walking away with substantial profits.

Harman's financial disclosure statement puts her wealth between $100 million and $300 million. Boxer, a relative pauper, claims assets of only $1.73 million, but she had dozens of lucrative stock transactions in energy companies during 2000.

Ah, it's glorious to be rich.

A brilliant young friend who is studying physics at Brown insists Shadow Government's passion for ancient history is a waste of time. That may be, but it sure comes in handy if you want lurid examples of where public corruption leads.

One of the better emperors, Vespasian, found that his predecessors -- four of them in a single year -- had left the treasury empty. Among other imaginative solutions, he instituted a tax on the use of the public urinals. You tossed a small, bronze coin in the trough when you finished.

Didn't fishing up all those pennies harm the state's dignity? Vespasian was asked.

"Money has no smell," he replied. Still true today; ask Boxer and Harman.

One might also recall how Rome's highest officials were rewarded after their year of elected service: they were given provinces to govern.

In a year as governor of a prosperous province, you were expected to steal enough to clear your campaign debts and set yourself up for life. Of course, you had to start out rich to get into the game.

So different from our own time.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, of course, have demonstrated over and over again in whose interest Republicans govern. Don't imagine that it's yours.

But in dismissing the Democrats as agents of reform, my Democratic friends argue, aren't you simply saying that reform is impossible? Haven't you abandoned the good in the name of an unattainable perfection?

There is only one reply. Look at Boxer and Harman. Look at Bill Clinton and Al Gore, for that matter. This isn't the good; this is the bad in a smiling disguise.

Democracy is not murdered by the rich seeking their own interests; it dies when the people's self-proclaimed friends sell them out to engorge themselves.

Is that what is happening in this country? Or is that what has happened already?

John A. Jackson may be reached at