Tuesday, July 14, 2009

25 Miles off the Coast of Indifference

If you haven't noticed already, I'm somewhat prone to spontaneous outbreaks of thoughtful musings about our nation, culture, and species. On one such occasion quite some time ago I must have emailed our state Senator, Barbara Boxer, because I received a letter from her office last Friday, July 10th informing me that a representative from her office would be in Avalon and available for me to see between 11:00 and 12:30 today (Wednesday, July 15th.)

I couldn't even remember what I'd complained about before, and don't even know if I have any basis for considering myself a part of the community just because I live in it. I don't get a paycheck from any employer here, nor own any part of any enterprise here, nor does any member of my family. I do own the home I'm living in. And am building another I hope to live in some day. (I was creamed by the collapse more than most so that's become a real challenge.) I have helped, or tried to, a few members of the community here with advice and loans and consider myself friends with many people here.

Plus Avalon is an unusual place. Many of the locals have been here for literally generations. (You'd think they were shooting for speciation.) One company, The Santa Catalina Island Company, dominates the community of Avalon because it owns most of the useful property in it (as well as every bit of the island that is not part of the Conservancy.) Most of the residents seem to have a love-hate relationship with SCICO (pronounced the island company.) I think the love part comes from the fact that this would just be a rock without the Wrigley family wealth to keep it operating with losses year after year and it really is a beautiful place to wake up every day. I think the hate part comes from the fact that the Wrigley family wealth doesn't leak out a bit faster.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I share the following letter I plan to give the representative from Senator Boxer's office later today because I don't really have standing to raise these issues. But I know people that do, and feel that someone should speak out about these issues because they really do affect us all. Even people who've never heard of Avalon or Santa Catalina Island.


I come before you today as a citizen of a community in economic crisis. Over the five years that I've lived here I've come to see why. Avalon suffers from a lack of the very lifeblood of capitalism--the opportunity to generate the goodwill value that is the hallmark of every successful enterprise.

I believe this often unnoticed aspect of our capitalistic system is what makes a community special to the people who own and work in these enterprises. Without that chance, people living here really don't have the control over their destiny necessary to plan and invest in their community wholeheartedly. Instead of being owners of their community, they are forced to be more adversarial; doing their best to get what they can each month because next month may never come. (When a large fraction of your population has an exit strategy it is a sign that your community may have a systemic problem. Or an active volcano.)

I am not trying to imply anything about the Santa Catalina Island Company (SCICO) except that by owning most of the commercial property it is difficult for them to avoid creating this situation. I know there are businesses here that are difficult or impossible to sell simply because they have no lease. I know the terms vary, and there are some leases, but it is usually just an initial lease for enough time to recoup construction costs. Most of the longstanding business seem to be month to month.

A consequence is that most of the employees work for a company they aren't quite as free to openly criticize as our national ideals suggest they should be. And a great many others work for companies that depend on friendly relations with SCICO in lieu of a lease. None of them are here with me today, but I know of some that wish they could be. It simply isn't worth risking their business, or jobs, or working environment to complain about because they don't see a remedy.

I want to make it clear that I've never even heard a rumor that SCICO abuses or does anything that might be considered exploitive of their enormous political and economic power here. I do not see them as villains in anything but the unavoidable consequences of their heritage and size. Avalon is like a lifeboat designed for 24 people. You could accommodate one or more people that weighed two to four times average by leaving some of the seats empty and balancing the load. But one person that weighs 10 to 20 times average renders the entire lifeboat unusable by everyone else regardless of how accommodating that huge person is struggling to be.

A few years ago the Justice Department attempted to get Vons to sell the smaller of their two locations here because it determined they were exploiting the community. Vons has that monopoly still because no one could compete without having the other location and necessary other infrastructure it takes to operate both. I remember this well because I was part of a group bidding for the site to open a competing market. SCICO wasn't interested in selling the land, just a 6 year lease that would have made it difficult just to recoup the cost of redeveloping the site from a run down annex type location to a full market. The only reason we were even considering it was because we felt connected enough in the community to make up for the inherent disadvantages of competing with such a large and well established market.

I believe the Justice Department missed the forest for the tree. The only reason Vons has no competition is because only SCICO owns enough commercial property to host a market large enough to compete with Vons and they aren't presently looking to fill any of that property with a market. If the commercial property was more widely owned then the use it was put to would better serve the community rather than the very gradually evolving agenda of SCICO.

I don't particularly like the remedies that government has for situations like this. But I believe the damage is real and quite serious. It undermines the will of the citizens of Avalon to develop a plan for their collective future. It limits the opportunities Avalon offers for entrepreneurs to create new businesses and develop a more diverse economy here. It makes our town less attractive to the most empowered and capable of people because there are such limited opportunities to deploy their talents. As they leave, our schools lose the parents with the most resources and time to participate in the educational process. Our children lose the role models most likely to inspire them to appreciate the utility of knowledge, attitude, and determination.

There is no good reason for this to be the case. The inherent potential of Avalon to become a profitable place to live and work, and an extremely attractive community to raise a family is enormous. We are so close to so many people who would appreciate a simpler lifestyle, not even needing a car, a healthier environment, and vastly more time to spend doing wholesome things together with their families. The internet has created many opportunities to earn a good living working from home. Many of those individuals would choose to live here if we hadn't passed that critical threshold where the infrastructure becomes a deciding factor. The school simply has too few children of upper and middle class families for most parents in that category to feel comfortable. I know of two cases specifically where it was exactly this issue that prevented one family from moving here and was a big factor in motivating another to leave.

An in depth study of our economy would reveal many of these externalities and explain why Avalon falls so far short of its potential to enjoy a vibrant growing prosperity. Being so isolated we are well suited to be carefully studied and could become a useful laboratory for exploring alternative strategies for everything from primary education to best incentivizing greener lifestyles and preventative medicine.

I believe our state and nation is facing many challenges but they all boil down to a single fundamental reality: our greatness as a society flows from our ability to harvest more of the competitive productive spirit of our humanity than other nations can from their humanity. We know that arming our children with the best education we can, the freedom to follow their passions, and the opportunity to keep their wealth is all it takes to end up with highly motivated and empowered citizens doing wonderful things for each other. Avalon is a place where all parts of that process can be carefully studied and where ways to improve, better incentivize, or even more wisely use taxes and subsidies can be explored and measured. I believe a very small project for California or America would yield enormous benefits for all of humanity by revealing more cost effective ways to better empower people to breath life into their dreams. I think it would help us develop better ways to measure both the positive and negative externalities of all enterprises and thereby reveal more elegant strategies to encourage the positives and avoid the negatives in communities all across our nation.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Thank you for articulating the problem so well. And in the best island tradition I will hide behind "Anonymous."