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.


Noblesse oblige system resists structural change

Posted on May 28, 2019 by Fred Allebach

The city council’s move to expedite a minimum wage raise in Sonoma has exposed a fault line of interests in the community. These interests, especially those in the philanthropy/non-profit sector, have been content to operate in a noblesse oblige system similar to medieval feudalism. Many times, it is said how great all the non-profits in the valley are, but what needs are they serving and why are those needs there in the first place?

Public/private dichotomy

Conservatives are the group that looks to individual, private actions as the most desirable, and Liberals look to the public sphere as the best area in which to affect desired change. Both ways are needed and it is dumb to pit one against the other as if it was all or nothing. However, government is the only entity that can meaningfully enact structural changes (1), to level the economic playing field, this was true in the New Deal and the Post WW2 era of great shared prosperity. Gradually, Conservatives have hit back on shared prosperity, destroyed collective-benefit funding streams, busted unions, discontinued social and environmental programs, undermined the Affordable Care Act, and allowed Wall Street to totally game the system to the advantage of the few.

Worker’s merits

In Sonoma Valley, Progressive groups and thinkers have taken Census and other demographic data and laid out in a series of public documents, just how unequal things are here. The Hidden in Plain Sight study, Portrait of Sonoma County/ The Springs, the State of Working Sonoma, and the UC Berkeley Labor Center minimum wage ordinance packet show Sonoma as a center of opulent wealth, with the Springs the home of the servants, as the “other side of the tracks.” The Hidden in Plain Sight study in particular called out the local philanthropy/ non-profit combine for a lack of addressing the most salient issues, and for throwing big parties as inefficient fund raisers.

Textual support

The book, Pictures of a Gone City, by UC Berkeley emeritus economic geography professor Richard Walker, explains and contextualizes the whole inequitable scenario here in Sonoma Valley.

It was no accident that things became so unequal. In his book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein shows how the US has intentionally promulgated segregationist and racist policies that now have legacy, systemic effects. People view current municipal arrangements as normal, as the result of simple choice, and of some people just getting up earlier in the morning than others etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth: The really nice Sonoma Valley rests on a base of structural discrimination. This discrimination creates class and racial stratification, creates poverty, that philanthropy and non-profits then attempt to address obliquely while never acknowledging central causes. (1)  

Sustainability paradigm is most apt

This brings us to current efforts in Sonoma and the valley to address housing and wage inequities, through the auspices of government, and also through some forward-looking efforts in the non-profit sector. This is happening now for a few reasons, one because multiple, objective, well-vetted, science-based studies reveal that we are at a critical mass of unsustainability (2) where action must be taken or we risk civilizational collapse, i.e. the writing is on the wall, and two, that Sonoma has a center-left Progressive city council majority (HHH, or Harrington, Hundley and Harvey) who sees the sustainability paradigm writing on the wall and is capable and willing to act. Hopefully we are just getting started with HHH.

The people testify

The accelerated minimum wage ordinance process now underway is a perfect structural remedy for what is essentially systemic, structural discrimination. This brings us to who supports this and who doesn’t. At the city council minimum wage hearings, 90% of the advocates who supported an accelerated min wage increase were from faith, labor, environmental, and sustainability grass roots groups who are not dependent on philanthropy for anything. Groups present were: Congregational Church, Sonoma Valley Democrats, Alliance for a Just Recovery, Sonoma Valley Housing Group, Praxis Peace Institute, North Bay Labor Council, Jobs with Justice, Greenbelt Alliance, Transition Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Valley Climate Coalition, Golden State Manufactured Home Owners Alliance, county and city volunteer commissioners, school system employees, local union reps, and Mario Castillo representing 1000 Facebook Latino community stakeholders. Mario brought 125 translated-from-Spanish stories of low wage workers testifying to their difficulties. 

An empty chair

No one from local non-profits showed up to advocate for an accelerated minimum wage. Pretty much what we are seeing is the business-as-usual community is scared to rock the boat, and does not want the existing stasis to be disrupted by structural remedies that will upend the noblesse oblige apple cart.

Against the minimum wage ordinance, one restaurant/business group had a petition signed by 600 plus people that specifically cited a higher minimum wage’s negative impact on charity giving. One restaurant said this outright in public comment.

What is fairest?

All this points directly to the tensions involved in government stepping up to right a structurally unfair system. Existing stakeholders who have all the cards, who are the beneficiaries of business as usual, resist change. One of their reasons is that the noblesse oblige apple cart will be upset. I’ll let the reader be the judge of whether it is better and more dignified to pay people their benefits up front, or to dole them out as charity. Ripple up for the 90% or trickle down from the 9% and the 1%?

Noblesse oblige people have good hearts, and want to help and do good deeds, they just want to do it in a frame that does not challenge existing privilege. This is a fantasy island view of Sonoma.   

By explicitly making the argument that paying a higher minimum wage would reduce charity contributions, businesses signal they do have the money, but would prefer to maintain the noblesse oblige system, and retain control to limit worker benefits so they can distribute this to the charity of their choice.

Appeasement trap

The non-profits in “town”, i.e. the lower valley area, that nominally represent and help low income residents, they did not show up to call for structural changes in accelerated fair pay because they are themselves in the chain of and dependent upon the noblesse oblige system. Were they fearful of philanthropic retaliation? Maybe so. With an interests-based analysis, it makes sense.

In any case, the extreme hoarding of wealth by a few while the majority suffers from lack of the basics, cannot be justified. The value of people’s work needs to be paid up front with a living wage, so that workers do not end up in modern versions of feudal servitude and slavery. The unfair structural factors that lie at the heart of our business-as-usual system can’t be condoned by people of conscience, but this is what America is, wicked unfair. This is why focusing on structural causes is the clearest path, it goes for the cause and not the symptoms. It endeavors to place a moral and ethical backstop on an exploitive system.

If non-profits fear retaliation and don’t want to offend big donors with any advocacy for structural change, this may not bode well for a private sector trajectory looking at structural changes as sustainability remedies. Non-profits may be locked into a dynamic of appeasement. Frankly, a core, critical need for sustainability is to dial down the extreme wealth at the top and bring up the basics at the bottom; this will reduce environmental impacts greatly in and of itself. There’s even a term for it: “upstream investment.”

The most sensible frame

As usual, in the minimum wage hearings, a furious battle was waged over how to frame the facts. Framing struggles are par for the course, and are designed and intended to persuade decision makers of the merits of one particular biased view over another. This is the dynamic of the intractable public policy dispute, or as I call it, alternate universes of facts colliding. In the minimum wage case, the merits break down to whether you support government taking the reins, steering towards full cost accounting sustainability, and making structural changes to benefit the neediest, or if you side with those who have the capacity to share more but only want to within a noblesse oblige system, and within a business model that requires poverty wages, even in wealthy Sonoma.

The first order of business is structural change, to modify our economic system towards sustainability, towards a metaphorical Star Fleet future. The compass points, in many, many ways, right to this very necessity.

Rugs and applecarts

The lower Sonoma Valley area is an avatar for lack of equity and social justice, a bubble of extreme privilege with a dark underbelly of externalized poverty and exclusion. It’s rare that any structural remedies even get to the table to be decided. Thank you HHH for even getting this out there. I’ll get over that the Jobs with Justice minimum wage template ordinance, the stronger remedy, the best justified on the merits remedy in my opinion, was not chosen. If you don’t have three votes, you don’t have three votes. The impulse by Rachel, the swing vote, was to cut slack to businesses. How things will finally play out is still up in the air.

A city minimum wage ordinance, even with a reduced scope, will address justice issues for the Springs servant community. This is vision, beyond the myopic frame of a Sonoma-only world. This is exactly the kind of planning and thinking we all need. Local is lower valley.  

The baseline, noblesse oblige combine here is unfair to start. The wealthy white community loves their great little town, one that rests on unacknowledged structural privation. The Red and White Ball says it all, lots of money spent on a party, the least efficient fund raising method, with benefits doled out to the advantage of white student’s parent’s pet programs, and teachers with real minority student needs having to beg and grovel to get some crumbs. It’s demeaning. This is emblematic of the rug that covers up our local noblesse oblige system, a superficial covering of structural discrimination. This rug deserves to get pulled out from under people of privilege. An accelerated minimum wage ordinance is a strong remedy. So will be fairer, more inclusive zoning, a representative area median income spread for the housing inclusionary ordinance, high density deed restricted Affordable Housing, and expanding the urban growth boundary into the Springs to enable future enfranchisement for the other side of the tracks.

Affirmative action?

What we are seeing now with housing and wages is a trajectory of affirmative action, much needed and well justified. If people can’t be fair, government has to make them be fair, or else we surrender to modern feudalism and modern indentured servitude.  HHH is, I believe, motivated by conscience and science, to see that government does what it can for sustainability. This is appropriate, as the “let the market take care of it”- business-as-usual way objectively leads to more inequity, pollution, and unsustainability. Milton Friedman himself said that government needs to be the moral backstop for market excesses. This can only happen if people in government have values above and beyond profit alone, i.e. that they are more like Star Fleet than the Ferengi.  

Many here who are part of the noblesse oblige, status quo system are threatened by the very idea of HHH. Many here are quite happy however, and hoping that local government can step up and represent our better angels.    


1: Structural factors are all the ways a ruling class games the legal and law enforcement system so that they have all the advantages, and through which the lower classes are kept out of power.

2: The Sustainability paradigm is an inclusive framing of the interaction of human and natural systems over time. Critical tenets are the concept of the triple bottom line, and an indicator-based full cost accounting of social, economic, and environmental factors. This model represents the best effort to date, for humanity to plan for and come to grips with a rational way forward in the face of existential threats of our own making.



2 thoughts on “Noblesse oblige system resists structural change

  1. If indeed some students are getting short shrift by pet projects that do not benefit them, maybe there should be a visible demonstration at the next Red and White.

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