Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


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Hotels and the economic benefits argument: the appearance of morality

Posted on March 15, 2017 by Fred Allebach

Leonardo da Vinci stood at the door to the modern world. He had a scientific world view, with a will to represent things as they are, based on observations, not as imagined. This was the birth of humanism, which put the individual at the center of the universe.

Leonardo and Machiavelli were friends, and had a mutual influence on each other. Machiavelli surely thought, “why not apply this objective observation and predictability to the realm of politics, human behavior, and psychology?” Those who get the power, get to make the laws that govern behavior, and a ruler can be more effective by knowing what makes people tick.

Through much study of historical examples and current events, Machiavelli could see that political struggles for power and control have always existed. He could then offer ways to potential Princes how such struggles could be more effective, to certain Prince’s advantage. Along with Leonardo, Machiavelli observed the “evil nature of men”, i.e. a well know list of basic human shortcomings. This predilection for greed, grasping, power, and control, that Machiavelli saw all around him, and in history, was to him, a social fact. Acknowledging that people have less than noble motivations was a necessary backdrop to Machiavelli’s development of an objective political calculus.

Machiavelli lived in Florence, which was located smack in between the warring parties of Spain, France, Venice, Naples, the German Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States, and the Ottoman Empire, all out to control and have hegemony over the territory of what is now Italy.  As political emissary for Florence, Machiavelli saw many power and control machinations first hand.

Many of Machiavelli’s insights have an uncanny good fit to what is happening in Sonoma today. Machiavelli studied history and was able to see patterns. For example, the Byzantine Emperor, needed funds to defend against the Ottoman Turk invasion. The rich citizens would not pay, and later when the Turks were winning and the sewage was coming in the front door, the rich Byzantines wanted to help, but the Emperor said: “go and die with your gold, since you could not live without it.”

Lesson: Sonoma has a super amount of wealth, but it is turned in on itself, removed from the life of everyday people. Yet non-profit NGOs that seek to benefit a greater social good are in a constant state of poverty and needing more funds. One or two local Sonoma potentates could fund all the NGOs in the Valley for a hundred years. And so, while social and environmental problems mount, the wealthy hang on to their excess money, until a final realization of responsibility is too little too late. The wealth inequity in Sonoma is well known, and well noticed by the public.

Another example: Florence was under-manned militarily, and was warring with neighboring Pisa, plus caught between other powers that threatened Florence’s sovereignty. Machiavelli saw that Florence need to raise its own force, from its own volunteers, rather than hire a mercenary force. Home grown patriots were known to be much more loyal, and more effective fighters. However, Florence’s leading families and factions demanded that such patriots not be raised from the city of Florence itself but from the surrounding countryside. Why? Local poor Florentines, when armed and with some power, would depose the local rich because of cumulative poor treatment. The main poor treatment was over-taxation with an unequal distribution of benefits.

Lesson: True democracy, one man-one vote, will undermine the influence of powerful factions and individuals. This is why efforts to suppress the vote, and to gerrymander Congressional districts have taken place.  In Sonoma, Kenwood Investments (Darius Anderson et al) had to buy a mercenary “grassroots” campaign to fight Measure B. In this campaign, what was unsustainable for Main Street, was spun to the exact opposite, all on the basis of a false “economic benefits” argument, that meaningful wealth will actually be redistributed to the public.

Kenwood Investments would have lost flat out against actual local Measure B patriots. Kenwood has kept on with its mercenary strategy, by sending form letters of what people should say in support of the current hotel project in 2017. There are not enough actually animated locals to be trusted to say anything in support of the Napa Street west hotel on their own.

Further Lesson: The city itself, staff and council, supported Anderson on Measure B. Planning staff appear to be in lock step now in 2017. It’s clear enough to see that with Sonoma’s aggregate power elite, the advantages go unequally to the rich, and they receive greater favor in city hall.

Another hotel project is proposed by Caymus Capital (Ed Routhier and Bill Jasper et al). Like Anderson’s Napa Street West hotel, Caymus has an involved rationale of “economic benefits” that are supposed to accrue to the city and its populace. This economic benefits argument amounts to trickle down mythology that has been proven to be lies and spin insofar as it results in better paying jobs and benefits for the working class. Like the Florentine powerful families, the primary motivation seems to be a continual self-enrichment. Anyone can see to where the bulk of the benefits accrue.

Should a straight up and down vote of the citizens decide the fate of either of these hotels, the “powerful families” would lose because one, the people outnumber the elites, and two, the people know there is an unequal distribution of benefits. The economic benefits argument is a smokescreen to gain favor with city hall and political commission appointees, and who can approve projects, not with the people. City functionary’s own livelihood is at stake with high income projects, with the huge bulk of the cost of government being salaries and benefits.

Machiavelli would have had a field day analyzing Sonoma!

Indeed, the Caymus Capital website shows an existence far removed from the life of the people. These elites have studied how to best take advantage of predation on unfortunate real estate losers, and how to maximize “exceptional returns” for investors. This is local fractal of a national rigging of the economy that benefits Wall Street tycoons. Caymus seems to be a bit more intemperate than Kenwood, not as patient or measured. Kenwood is more Machiavelli’s the fox and the lion. However, both go right after the economic benefits argument as if it were undeniable fact. They buy their mythology. They pay lots of money to create alternative facts. It is not hard for Joe Sixpack volunteers and patriots however, to decipher the spin. It is plain to see where economic benefits in Sonoma really go.

Should Sonoma schools or other public services be in need, (and why they would be in need in such a wealthy area is beyond comprehension), then the hotel magnates have the perfect excuse to appear publicly beneficial while the overwhelming benefit goes to them personally.

These examples underline that the rich are insular and self-satisfied but, also aware of their vulnerability to actual democracy. The “rich”, i.e. modern day Sonoma investors, are not really out to benefit a greater social good, but rather out to continue to enrich themselves even more.

In Sonoma this is made evident with issues of hotel development, and its corollaries in unlimited tourism promotion, and the rise of corporate wine. These “investments” overwhelmingly benefit the top dogs only. No amount of economic benefit spin will change the truth of that. If there was any widespread economic benefit for society, why are wages still so low and housing, goods, and services still priced so high? Why? Well, because the economic benefits argument is all smoke and mirrors. It is pure Wall Street mythology. It only benefits those who already don’t need any benefitting. It is greed masquerading as generosity. If the returns are so exceptional, why not step up and fund a host of actual community services that are struggling to just get by?

Since the purpose of such obscene self-aggrandizement, that has produced the 1% in the first place, is morally questionable, these types of hotel endeavors have to be cloaked with an economic benefits argument, to make it appear there is some sort of redeeming value. This here is pragmatic, efficient, pluralistic, and amoral.

A game is being played. Local politicians and city staff try to thread the needle with talk of public benefit. But they end up justifying the self-aggrandizers, and then call it pragmatism and playing by the rules.  “This is reality, this how things are; this is how the game is played.” Staff has motivation to keep fees from these rich movers and shakers rolling in. In an age of diminishing pensions, these fee monies will fund and guarantee their own retirement. This is all in the name of efficiency, effectiveness, delivering services. But to who are such services delivered? The public or the developers?  Who are the city’s primary constituents? In whose framework is public good being defined here?

The hotel approving process appears as a logical checking off of boxes to meet existing policy and regulations. Any exceptions the public may find, or valid challenges made, are deftly put down as irrelevant and insignificant. Irrelevant because the little guy has no power. Insignificant because the powers that be say so. The public is maddening unable to affect the steamroller of hotel developers. It starts to become clear that city staff has an interest in justifying the developers, that self-interests are coinciding.

What we are seeing in Sonoma is the same pattern as the powerful factions not wanting to draw troops from the city of Florence in the year 1500. Any listening-to-the-people, or ceding of power to the people would necessarily cause a major diminishing in power for the small local elite and its administrators.

The aggregate pattern here is of a tourism combine that is unsustainable for the little guy but just great for the 1% top dogs and their immediate beneficiaries. This is where the economic benefits argument hits its mark. What we are seeing is just like with Trump, the guys in power buy lawyers and consultants, say anything, and get away with whatever they can, even if amoral, blatant lies and untrue. The real target of such spin is not the people but the city functionaries who can give the rich an open pipeline to economic control of power.

In Sonoma this is manifested in a continued arc of wealthy self-enrichment cloaked with Dionysian revelry, and a minimal amount of lip service to the public good. Thanks to Machiavelli, even the greedy know it is wise to appear moral even if they are not.

What I’m doing here is to re-invoke a sense of morality out of a modern worldview where greed and self-interest has come to be confused with a greater social good. I’m seeking to contrast old-fashioned, actual virtue, with selfishness and greed. Self-interest of the rich (and its associated inequity) used to be justified by Divine Rule. What has replaced it is a hybrid of science-based Social Darwinism, and Age of Reason invisible hand dogma that combine in an allegiance to the amoral free market, efficiency and pragmatism. This all has the affect letting local petty tyrants run wild. This results in the economic benefits argument. It accomplishes the exact same outcome as Divine Rule. It results in the same wealth inequity pattern of Florence, Italy in the year 1500.

Meanwhile, actual public benefit entities, like non-profit developers, are forced off the land-use stage because “the market” has jacked up the prices so high, through an aggregate collusion of real estate and tourism boosting. The market ensures that actual affordable housing, and concomitant local services, will never be built on the scale necessary to serve the people. “Market rate” housing development has positioned itself now as the savior to regional housing problems. This looks a lot like Florence of old, the little guys just squeezed and squeezed until there is about nothing left for the Princes to get.

And ironically, this can’t be blamed on Trump; this is behavior from our own local wealthy liberals!

Face it, something is seriously wrong with a picture where the 1% have all the money, and then they keep needing more, and call it an economic benefit to the people they are ripping off.  How stupid can people get to buy into this façade of [email protected]$#% Trickle down is horse feathers.

The city of Sonoma wants to be efficient and effective, scientific, pragmatic, logical, yet that ends up tacitly allowing the levers of power to default to rich players, whose main agenda is to keep enriching themselves more. The city must be “cost effective”, which means being miserly and not generous, means valuing money above all: the economic benefits argument filters through…  Such pragmatism results in a funding stream for staff to sustain themselves, as the primary cost of government, and with the public maybe getting a few crumbs: a fire truck and a new roof on the school.

As we see from the unincorporated county right next to Sonoma, no services are actually necessary anyway. The county gets pot holes filled, Round Up gets sprayed on weeds on the side of the road, trash gets picked up, trees trimmed off electric lines, and that’s about all you need.

Councilmembers, commissioners and citizens who are not wealthy won’t get any personal benefits by supporting the above-mentioned rich developers. For a cold-hearted view, just look at whose interests are at stake to approve the above-noted hotel projects. One, the investors will totally make out, two, staff will be guaranteed a retirement check from the fees and tax funds sent to the city. For Joe Sixpack citizens there will be no benefit other than words, a smokescreen of invisible hand Darwinian justifications. Joe Sixpack soon won’t even be around to have a say, as Sonoma’s demographic is rapidly being stacked by non-locals who are rich enough to not care about equity issues.

Sonoma will thus become like Carmel and Tiburon, an inward-focused wealthy enclave where all the workers have been externalized, with no voice or vote, their stolen value to enrich the top dog’s bank accounts even more. This is the scenario if the top dogs keep getting their way. If the people prevail, Sonoma will dial back the aggregate wealth machine, and the city turn back to serving residents first, in an actual representative democracy. Machiavelli later in life turned his attention to the creation of a just society, in his book The Discourses. Hope springs eternal.

Machiavelli, in 1507 on why the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) did not attack Italy: “… the cities know that the conquest of Italy would not be for their benefit, but for that of the princes, who can personally enjoy that country, which they could not do. And where the benefit is unequal, people are not willing to bear unequal expenses…”

As it stands, the Plaza and Sonoma is a growing testament to unequal benefit. Town has incrementally been taken over by wine hospitality tourism, an “economic benefit” that in truth serves only a few. As Sonoma County’s economy booms, fueled by the wine-tourism-hospitality combine, and real estate gentrification, the power elites cash in and the news from the top is rosy, while all the workers get externalized to Vallejo or are forced to pay obscene rents and other costs for goods and services.

Some council members, commissioners, and staff may want to represent social justice constituents, those lowest and least powerful on the socio-economic ladder. Such blatant inequality as there is in Sonoma Valley calls for relief. But since the poor have no power, there is not much payoff to represent them. The poor do not show up at meetings, and the temptation is to be swayed by pragmatic allegiances to power, which is controlled by those with lots of money and critical governmental staff who can pave the way for their common interests with the rich.

When you can, it’s easier to get on the gravy train then it is to address a stark inequality that underlies all the great economic benefits.

Into the breach come the non-profits, to beg crumbs from the Princes, so as to serve the very poor the rich (Bay Area liberals) have created by not paying the actual value of what workers have earned. Non-profits can’t challenge the structural inequity, or they would get no money. Checkmate.

And just think, if a mere voting majority could turn out to run a few Progressive city or First District ballot initiatives, say, to mandate by policy the values important to the people, then it would be done, the tide turned. It may happen yet. Such a democracy would be seen as dangerous by the powers that be, a usurpation of power and control.

The poor do have moral high ground. This is why you only see the faith community stepping up to advocate for undocumented immigrants, and the poor, and burgeoning seniors who need affordable housing. The business community doesn’t waste its time on non-paying morality, only the modern amorality that justifies the invisible hand that keeps society pragmatically unequal to their benefit. A government that levels the playing field, that serves the people (New Deal, Great Society, Affordable Care Act) is anathema to the business oriented.  And so, the “economic benefits” smokescreen gets pulled out, as an effort to appear to serve, to appear moral, when actually not. This is such a transparently self-serving line that any thoughtful person would just have to call bullshit on that. Yet somehow the levers of power have been taken by these guys, nationally and in Sonoma.

If the hotel boys are going to get “exceptional returns”, why not share this out up front with the community and workers? Why keep up the farce of how great they all are for dispensing a few crumbs of charity, TOT, and for a putative “multiplier effect”? What is needed, for a real economic benefits regime, is structural change, to shift the center of power from Wall Street to Main Street.

This is what we need for Sonoma, a shift to Main Street values. Counting three votes on the city council to turn down the hotels and approve the affordable housing…  can we get three? Does this fit the council goals?

Wall Street values is not just a modern flavor of efficient, science-based amorality. This is as old as the hills, see Matthew 19:24 “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Self-interest and good morals don’t go together. You can’t serve two masters. You  can’t serve God and Mammon both, Mammon being money…

Let’s see some of our local big boys take up the Bill Gates/ Warren Buffett pledge to divest it all for public good.

And so, what mileage do I get out of saying all this? This is the kind of talk Machiavelli made with The Prince that pissed everyone off and said he was immoral for calling a spade a spade, for noting what Leonardo, Luther and many others called “the evil nature of men.”

In Machiavelli’s day, corrupt Popes and institutional power hungry Catholics precipitated the Reformation. This is exactly the same type of corruption we have with the 1% and Citizen’s United today. Money is buying all values. And Sonoma has its own local 1% Divine Rulers, they who are right in the thick of the real estate-wine-hospitality-tourism-hotel-development business, whose greed is cloaked as an “economic benefit”. As Machiavelli advised, appear moral even if you are not.

The mileage I’m getting is simply to call out the economic benefits argument as a façade,  appearance only.

In Sonoma the actual public is being displaced by trust funders and rich Silicon Valley second home owners who will suck up to the ruling combine. Through aggregate segregating zoning ordinances, red lining, high-end real estate promotion, and Tourism Improvement District/ Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau advertising hype, any public that would resist the local 1% is run out of town, or obfuscated by 100s of pages of undecipherable text, unable to compete with the high-payed mercenary troops and supporting officials.

The “economic benefits” invasion proceeds apace, with the opposition, now gaining as the Resistance, winning one big battle years ago against the Rosewood hillside hotel. Things have been close, yet mercenary forces and strategic commission political appointees and staff have kept the business interests just barely ahead. The money and power are just not behind the Jack Wagners of Sonoma. Without a sense of being heard and accounted for, the Main Street opposition has no choice but to fight back with everything they have.

Sonoma is a fractal of Florence in the year 1500, a fractal of a national power struggle between the races, between the upper and lower classes. Between Wall Street and Main Street interests.

Machiavelli’s message with The Prince has ramified out to the Age of Reason, to Hume and Hamilton: men should be presumed to be corrupt and only out for their own interests. Thus, government must have a system of checks and balances. A political system made up of men, where greed and self-aggrandizement are recognized as salient factors, has to take check and balances into account to level the playing field. Where are such checks in Sonoma?

Well, citizens can read the packets and the EIRs, and show up and make an educated comment. They can fight the powers that be and dispute what are seen as “the facts.” They can write comments like this. The objective lay of the land, as Machiavelli has shown, is really a reflection of whose interests are at stake. Follow the money to see where such interests are. It is not really a fight about “the facts”; it’s a fight about who has power and control.

The better the public understands the power and control issues that underlie public policy, the better aim they may take to hit an actual target.

In Sonoma, and the USA, morality is in conflict. Moral behavior calls for moderation of known behavioral excesses, such as greed and self-aggrandizement. What we get instead are disingenuous economic benefits assertions that don’t really do anything for the man on the street. This is basically our national cultural war in a nutshell.

Moral universals such as compassion, humility, the Golden Rule etc. are up against an economic mind-set that values the exact opposite of these qualities. In order to succeed in business, people need ambition, greed, and self-assertion. In the US a culture of self, of the individual, has been unloosed, with a full boat of supporting national mythology, to the detriment of the communities we are actually adapted to live within.

Machiavelli saw this paradox, and hence his pragmatic advice: appear moral, yet use necessary immoral means to retain power. This is exactly what economic benefits argument are. An effort to appear moral in service individual ambition and greed.

If money is the actual representation of equity, and some have it all, and the majority doesn’t have enough, and the few are pushing projects to enrich themselves even more, while any proposal to enact a larger equity in Sonoma Valley remains unfulfilled, and a living wage is called unrealistic by these very same economic benefits people, I think we can see our way clear to call bullshit on that again.

It is on the basis of the above observations that Sonoma is being played out by Princes who cloak their own ambition as a social good. To be charitable, yes, crumbs will help, but compared to an actual concerted effort to enact a social good, the crumbs pale by comparison. This is why you don’t see any of the big, hard ball business players in any church, and why Sonoma has far more banks and financial services than churches. Big money is not even pretending to be moral in an actually virtuous way, only the invisible hand way. The people don’t buy the economic benefits/ multiplier effects spin because it is so patently untrue. Why? The spoils are not shared equally, plain enough to see.

If we are going to talk “exceptional returns” on real estate, hotels, and from a tourism combine that has displaced locals from their own town, it is reasonable for the city to ask for use permits and fees of an exceptional nature, so that not only the Princes and the functionaries will benefit, but the man on the street as well, in measurable and significant ways.

There is simply no good reason why 1% should control the bulk of all wealth, nor why local projects should be approved that destroy the fabric of town more than they benefit the bulk of the citizenry. The hotel economic benefits argument cannot be justified. The only reason it has any sway is through a Machiavellian effort to appear as moral, when in fact the benefits are distributed in an entirely unequal manner.

2 thoughts on “Hotels and the economic benefits argument: the appearance of morality

    1. It’s good for people’s lexicon to come across some new words once in a while. There has been too much homogenization of Americans ideas, thoughts and grammatical ability. Which I think is a point that can be added ; these issues are beyond what many think they are capable of; speaking at a public meetings, reading a business plan, forecasting potential outcomes, challenging authority, knowledge of laws & regulations, application of precedence, speaking truth to power and doing so often enough to affect change. It is a disgrace to democracy that so many public meetings are unattended. Many of the concerns shared above occur not becasue of inequity but because of apathy. Nice job Fred.

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