News & Views from 465 California Street

Too Big to Succeed

Clint Reilly

General Motors. Lehman Bros. The San Francisco Chronicle. The State Capitol. The Church. The Republican Party.

Why are these fortresses under attack?

Formerly impregnable bulwarks of our society – banks and car companies, churches, governments and newspapers – are facing convulsive challenges, wrenching change or extinction.

The printed word, long a building block of our democracy, is passing away in many communities, taking with it the local columnist and the blistering editorial. Many young people no longer find newspapers relevant to their lives.

California’s democratic government has hit the wall. The ever-widening gulf between rising expectations and shrinking pocketbooks has caused Sacramento to grind to a halt. Apparent needs have far outpaced the willingness of citizens to foot the bill. But that’s only part of the problem. The legislature seems increasingly unable to solve problems. Special interest money calls the shots.

Unbridled capitalism has fewer worshipers today than 20 years ago. And Ronald Reagan, the standard bearer of capitalism’s triumph, is a much-diminished figure after his hands-off policies toward the free market nearly ended in global bankruptcy.

“What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” now seems more like an Andy Warhol screen print than a paean to quality. The Republican Party no longer has a message that resonates. Home ownership is a questionable aspiration. The stock market is a casino. The line between borrowing and binging, success and excess, just rewards and greed has closed. The Greek columns that symbolize banks’ timeless stability are now just reminders of false promises made upon rotten foundations.

The church pews are thinning. A clergy shortage continues to pose challenges. A child abuse scandal rocks the Catholic Church. Vigorous debate over such controversial issues as contraception, abortion, gay marriage, married clergy and the ordination of women have wracked Catholicism and Anglicanism on both sides of the Atlantic. Fundamentalist Christians face off in a culture war against “godless elites.”

Our crumbling institutions suffer from many of the same ailments.

First, unchecked monopoly power can kill any Goliath. We need to hear footsteps behind us to keep us sharp; it’s human nature. Too many businesses became so large and global that they outgrew the government’s ability to regulate them. They became accountable only to themselves. But it wasn’t just the corporate chieftains; labor unions also grew isolated from their customers and insulated from the marketplace. The lack of competition bred complacency.

Even Reggie Jackson needed October to bring out the best in him.

Second, fat and happy institutions gradually disconnect from reality, forming their own insular ecosystem. It is a form of inbreeding sustainable only because there is virtually unlimited money to provide oxygen.

Monopoly newspapers refused to acknowledge the threat of the Internet. Wall Street investment houses – awash in everybody else’s money – doled out gratuitous compensation for both workers and executives. But unrealistic pay packages created a culture of entitlement. Like that, the mandate for self-critique and change was eliminated.

Third, moral superiority is nothing more than a self-declared monopoly on the truth. Such certainty of one’s own righteousness is a dangerous trait that exempts religions (and other institutions) from self-examination, rational probing and conscientious doubt. Such extremism is practiced not only by Islamic zealots but also by too many Christian denominations and believers.

Fourth, a wanton obsession with money has not only destroyed companies – it is now also destroying government. Nothing has been more responsible for the trillions of taxpayer dollars lost in the economic meltdown than the billions of dollars spent by special interests to neuter office holders and emasculate public interest legislation.

The too big, the too rich, and the too self-righteous must eventually face the egalitarian imperative that all of us are accountable to one another.

Comments (16)

  • “The lack of competition bred complacency… fat and happy institutions gradually disconnect from reality, forming their own insular ecosystem… moral superiority is nothing more than a self-declared monopoly on the truth. Such certainty of one’s own righteousness is a dangerous trait that exempts religions (and other institutions) from self-examination, rational probing and conscientious doubt.”

    You’ve just described San Francisco’s City Government to a tee!

    Posted by: David K | June 9th, 2009 at 2:12 am

  • Cool article. So on time and target with the times.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | June 9th, 2009 at 9:46 am

  • During the election and since there has been much said about what a great guy Ronald Reagan was. Am I missing something?

    Wasn’t he dedicated anti-labor ?

    Did he not close Agnews throwing many ill people on the streets?

    Did not the middle class lose purchasing power during his administration?


    The guy was a bum!

    Posted by: Reid M. | June 10th, 2009 at 9:40 am

  • Your Public service message in today’s (06-09-2009) San
    Jose Mercury is an echo of exactly what I was saying to my father last
    evening. It seems like I have to check more and more media outlets to
    get past the “top ten list” of headline stories. Are there any
    opportunities for me to volunteer to help the causes you work with?
    Possibly help like minded individuals in the Santa Clara County? I
    just felt compelled to take the time to say bravo and thank you for
    your work.
    Keep fighting the good fight,
    Dan L

    Posted by: Dan L. | June 10th, 2009 at 9:42 am

  • Gee, your spin blaming Reagan’s free market policies on the current economic problems is creative. My impression of the democrats mantra is that it is all Bush’s fault.

    I remember succeeded Carter and had to deal with 10% unemployment and 18% interest rates. Reagan left office with 7% unemployment, 7% interest rates and doubled government revenue. Yes, Reagan did not use his veto pen enough. The democratic congress spent $1.20 for every dollar of new tax revenue.

    Posted by: Dick | June 10th, 2009 at 9:42 am

  • WOW! Once again you “hit the perverbial nail on the head”! (all our
    heads) The only thing I have to say here is that I hope your next public
    service message is to outline solutions, or at least suggestions) to each
    of the monumental issues stated in your message. How to tackle personal
    responsibility and greed has been a question for the ages? We all would
    like to believe it statrs at the top down, (unlike Ronny’s trickle down
    theory) but I believe the biggest change first has to start from within each
    and every one of us.

    Keep up the “town cryer bit” because there are far too few of you around!

    Posted by: Rick | June 10th, 2009 at 9:43 am

  • Quite a Malthusian column; but not to worry. Relax in your rocking chair. The Obama…”above the Country and the world..sort of a God” is now in charge. He knows best—-including your health care coverage.

    Please let your readers know when you will volunteer to be covered by Obama’s health care plan. Leadership is leading by example.

    Best……………Hank R

    Posted by: Hank R. | June 10th, 2009 at 9:44 am

  • I enjoyed your last sentence. It enforces the ageless battle human nature has tried to fight and overcome only to face the timeless, truthful outcome. Having said that, we need leaders that respect our system of checks and balances, both private sector and government. In the final analysis, will amassing all the power, intelligence, education, righteousness, and wealth win the war? I haven’t got a clue and I’m not sure I want to know.

    Posted by: Robert M. | June 10th, 2009 at 9:44 am

  • I agree with almost everything you said in your June 9th PSM. The thing is– you laid out all the problems but didn’t really suggest any solutions. Now I’m not so naive to suggest that there is a simple solution to the litany of concerns in your piece, but I do think there is a course of action that would go a very long way in dealing with the ills you discussed.

    You correctly point out, Clint, that “Special interest money calls the shots,” and that the “billions of dollars spent by special interests to neuter office holders and emasculate public interest legislation” is the single biggest cause of the economic meltdown that will wind up costing us trillions of dollars. But you didn’t follow up with advocacy of the kind of voluntary public financing of elections that has been successful in Arizona and Maine for almost ten years and was recently enacted in Connecticut.

    Since the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision in Buckley v Valeo, the people are limited in imposing spending limits on candidates. The court seems to think that would inhibit free speech, apparently not comprehending that the system as it now stands gives a huge advantage to those who are able to finance the ever increasing cost of buying television and media time. The fact is political speech is not free and those who can afford it dominate the political forum.

    The best alternative, until the court comes to its senses, is public funding of elections. Where enacted, it has resulted in more diverse candidates, bigger voter turnout, and some real innovation and reform in government. We need to extend this system to Congress and as many states as possible. California has a limited, pilot program of public funding on the ballot in June, 2010 called the Fair Elections Act.

    It would create a voluntary system of public financing for the Secretary of State’s Office in the 2014 and 2018 elections. You can find details at It would be funded by voluntary tax checkoffs and increased fees on lobbyists, making them the same as the fees in Illinois.

    There is also proposed legislation in Congress, the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a similar system for the House and Senate. Despite his reliance on private donations during the presidential race, Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill introduced by his friend Sen. Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Spector of Pa. Both of these measures will be strongly opposed by the special interests. If public spirited persons like you, and if President Obama decides to make passage a priority, now may be the best chance ever to take a major step in cleaning up government and making it responsible to the people.

    Most opponents argue that public funding is a waste of taxpayers’ money. But as you point out, Washington politicians received billions from Wall Street and let’s just say it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the connection between the lobbying and huge contributions and the failure to look out for the public interest. We could also talk about the huge contributions from insurance, pharmaceutical and energy companies and the billions lost in medical and energy costs. So the cost of
    public financing of elections is a drop in the bucket when compared to money lost because our government doesn’t really represent us.

    So I commend your observations, Clint, but please, next time, give your readers some hope.

    Posted by: B. Carr | June 10th, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • I believe your summary in this article is terrific.

    Posted by: Keith K. | June 10th, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • I appreciate your bold and forthright article. I look forward to see you
    sometime to share your vision. Regards, bsm

    Posted by: BSM | June 10th, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • Many thanks for your views……most of which I agree.

    Like you, I am an independent, truth seeker, mild activist (after serving three terms in elected office). Just wanted to connect and let you know that your columns are read with interest and appreciation.

    Have you thought about how we would raise our state revenues?

    Regards, Valerie H

    Posted by: Valerie | June 10th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  • I’ve been enjoying your columns in the CC Times.
    Keep up the good work.

    Bill D

    Posted by: Bill D. | June 10th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  • Right on, right on… Do you have a plan in mind?

    Fred G

    Posted by: Fred | June 11th, 2009 at 9:20 am

  • Thank you for your article in the Merc: “Too Big to Succeed.” It’s refreshing to see such clarity.

    In California politics, it seems the most radical position one can take is that of a thoughtful moderate. It’s good to that there are still some radicals left!

    Posted by: Patrick B. | June 11th, 2009 at 9:20 am


    Posted by: J. Horton | June 11th, 2009 at 9:21 am

Add a Comment


Home   |   Blog   |   Legal   |   Contact