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— Sociologists lament San Diegans' lack of political participation and social cohesion. The overlords celebrate it -- secretly, of course.

Four years ago, Robert D. Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy, authored a book, Bowling Alone, postulating that Americans are socially alienated -- not participating in civic culture. Without the cement of social networks and interconnectedness -- what Putnam calls "social capital" -- societies will become more apathetic and less educated, he argued.

It brought to mind an old joke. Question: "What's more dangerous -- ignorance or apathy?"

Answer: "I don't know, and I don't give a damn."

Putnam's researchers went on to measure social capital of various geographical areas. San Diego was one of 40 jurisdictions that participated. The results were dismal. Putnam said San Diego was the second-loneliest city in the U.S.

In a number of categories (such as social and interracial trust, political participation, giving and volunteering), communities were assigned an expected score of 100 based on demographic factors such as education and age distribution. If a region scored above 100 in a category, it was doing well. A score below 100 was poor.

San Diego was below 100 in every category -- usually far below. In political participation, only one of the 40 geographical areas did worse than San Diego. In both civic leadership and interracial trust, only two did worse, and in giving and volunteering, only five scored lower. Some gloated that San Diego got a 93 in social trust. But that topped only 11 areas.

Some groups, such as the San Diego Foundation, pledged to do something about it. Late last year, San Diego State University announced an effort to promote civic engagement, called "Envision San Diego: The Creative Community."

In promoting its mission, Envision quotes San Diego pollster and social commentator Daniel Yankelovich, who has astutely observed a growing disconnect between citizens and elected officials.

But Envision erred from the outset. It appointed a steering committee of 23 persons. Two were from the Union-Tribune, two from San Diego magazine, and one each from Sempra Energy, SBC (Pacific Bell), Qualcomm, the biotech trade group San Diego BioCom, the convention and visitors bureau, regional chamber of commerce, and Regional Economic Development Corp. Those members, along with several others, gave the overlords or their lackeys a plurality.

Could an establishment-dominated group tackle the tough questions? For example, could it examine 30 years of biotech in San Diego and ask: has this industry spawned jobs and successful companies, or has it made insiders and venture capitalists rich in initial public offerings? Biotech jobs are still less than 3 percent of San Diego's civilian employment. Only a few companies -- mainly Agouron (now part of Pfizer) and Idec (Biogen Idec) -- have been successful. But those who got cheap shares in initial public offerings got rich. In short, biotech has widened the already deep divide between rich and poor in San Diego but has not yet made many scientific strides. Can the overlords, who rake in dough from the stock offerings, evaluate biotech's contribution? Please.

John M. Eger, a communications professor at San Diego State, was a driving force behind Envision. "The things that ought to happen aren't well communicated," he says. "There isn't a constituency to support good things."

True. But then I asked him point-blank if the membership of that steering committee would be an impediment to achieving good things -- that is, if the establishment really has a vested interest in San Diego's societal disconnectedness, ignorance, apathy. He didn't agree with the last point, but he did concede, "The steering committee is no more. You are right. If they had their way, we would not be able to do these things."

By the next morning, he had changed his mind. The steering committee "insisted that Envision be as open, inclusive, diverse, and transparent as possible. [This is] important, as I may have given the wrong impression," he said. His change of heart had shone a bright light on San Diego: the overlords control so much of the wealth and power that any group trying to promote independent thinking and an active electorate will never get adequate funding, mainstream press coverage, or off the ground.

On March 31 of this year, California state librarian Kevin Starr, a University of Southern California professor and expert in state history, said at an Envision forum that San Diego "has always had a strongly engaged oligarchy," or government by a small ruling elite. No argument there.

On May 14 of last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation probers raided the offices of three city councilmembers who were later charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. For several weeks, the raid dominated print and electronic news. In early June, Competitive Edge, which does polling for KPBS, asked citizens if they knew about the raid. Almost 27 percent didn't know about it; more than 52 percent said they were "somewhat familiar" with it. And one-third said there was no ethics crisis among local politicians.

It shows that ignorance and apathy are tools of the oligarchy. How else can you explain how the citizenry has been conned? In 1998, when the city was voting on the ballpark, people were assured that the city was flush with money and among the nation's best-managed local governments. Only a few were pointing out that the infrastructure was run down, and the city was balancing budgets by selling land, failing to maintain police and fire equipment, and underfunding the pension system. Last year's fires and pension crises woke up some people -- but how many?

In November of 2002, Diann Shipione, a member of the city's pension board, told the city council that the system was badly underfunded. P. Lamont Ewell, then assistant city manager, declared she had "slanted and misrepresented the facts" and her comments were without merit. But early this year, the city admitted it had been concealing the pension shortfall, and the federal government launched an investigation. Shortly, Ewell was named city manager. Hmm. Last week, the council made reforms that confirmed Shipione's warnings. In the same session, Michael Zucchet -- one of the three councilmembers under indictment -- proposed (and the council passed) a measure that could knock whistle-blower Shipione off the board.

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