San Diego As politicians, real estate developers, and other sharks know, voters will fall for con jobs about creation of jobs.
That's why, as the post-fire rhetoric heats up, we must discern who is blowing hot air, particularly when a developer blames the fires on environmentalists and then claims that his proposed housing tracts will create jobs.
First, keep in mind that the San Diego economy -- already outperforming the state and the nation -- will spurt even more as money pours in from the outside. That's normal: disasters bring growth.
San Diego tourism, which has been just about the best in the country, will be dented somewhat, but not for more than a month, according to Jerry Morrison, a La Jolla- based hotel guru. Then it should boom again.
The hiking/camping market will suffer some lasting effects, but it's not a large piece of the pie, says Alan Gin, an economist at the University of San Diego. Im-migration will probably pick up, largely because the tract-obsessed construction industry doesn't have the manpower or skills to replace structures "one house at a time," he says. Labor will have to be imported. Although some insurance prices may rise, the housing market should continue to boom -- indeed, "It might have even gotten tighter" with elimination of some homes, says Gin.
Bringing in bushels of money to San Diego will be one of the nation's great publicity/politics machines, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This agency rushes into purportedly disaster-stuck towns and shovels out aid such as low-cost loans. Arriving simultaneously is the president, followed by the sycophantic media. Bill Clinton used FEMA the way he used FEMALES. As soon as he took office, the number of disaster-area declarations soared. His first year, the New York Times and USA Today ran a picture of him hugging a sobbing 24-year-old woman who was a disaster victim.
Dubya is learning fast. On his recent San Diego trip, a photo of him hugging a young lady who had lost her home made papers across the U.S. Among local politicians, Supervisor Dianne Jacob has made the most media mileage from the fires.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, by giving fast, low-interest loans so that people can rebuild, simply sets up communities for the next disaster. Sums up James Bovard of the Cato Institute, "The Federal Emergency Management Agency is good at winning headlines. But do we really want to help rebuild homes and government property in areas that should never have been built on in the first place?"
Through its low-cost loans, subsidized insurance, and other devices, the agency encourages people to relocate homes and businesses in areas that are chronically disaster-prone -- flood plains, for example. Will San Diegans get government loans to rebuild homes with shake roofs on ridge lines or steep slopes? Don't laugh. Until a couple of years ago, a fire station on Mt. Helix had a shake roof.
Economists Thomas A. Garrett of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and Russel Sobel of West Virginia University did a long-range study of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of the major conclusions: "States politically important to the president have a higher rate of disaster declaration by the president." Sums up the study, "Nearly half of all disaster relief is motivated politically, rather than by need."
No surprise there. This is how bureaucracies burgeon: maximizing press coverage of the societal problem they are supposed to address but never making a dent in that problem lest they are so successful they work themselves out of their jobs.
It appears that San Diego will escalate the century-old debate of smokestacks versus geraniums, quantity of life versus quality of life, fast growth versus slow or no growth. Both the real estate industry and the environmentalist/slow-growth coalition will use the fire to advance their causes.
Already, the building industry is screaming that governmental red tape must be cut so that people can get new homes built quickly. But as former councilmember Bruce Henderson points out, "slashing red tape" is a code phrase for making sure that permits are approved without rigorous environmental enforcement -- including insistence on fire protection.
Developers and their media lackeys blame the blazes on environmentalists, and with no evidence, on eco-terrorists. John Fund of The Wall Street Journal's online editorial page quotes two San Diegans decrying environmental rules that purportedly kept the flames going. Then Fund comes up with this startling statement: "Authorities say most of the ten fires in Southern California were started by arsonists, either thrill-seekers or eco-terrorists opposed to new housing developments." (Italics mine.) Really? What authorities? I know of none saying that. You can expect redneck radio to blame eco-terrorists in an attempt to besmirch environmentalists.
You have to understand the Journal's editorial page. An excellent story in the November 3 New Yorker puts it in perspective. During the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky years, the Journal's edit page gave the scandal a staggering 3000 pages of editorial and op-ed columns. Later, they were all packaged in six volumes. But a reporter asked Robert Bartley, who ran the edit page then, whether his page would have supported or attacked Newt Gingrich for similar peccadilloes. The paper would have defended Newt's activities, Bartley said laconically. "That's the way it is."
Yes, that's the way it is locally, too. County Supervisor Bill Horn immediately stated that the areas that burned most severely were open spaces that are required of developers -- who have Horn and other local pols stuffed neatly in their pockets.
Then there is the idea of building high-rise apartments and condominiums in core areas, such as downtowns -- part of the so-called "smart growth" strategy. "Heretofore, everyone in San Diego has been trying to make a bundle of money off of land conversion," says Duncan McFetridge, backcountry supporter and head of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands. "Now we're getting signals from builders and realtors who see apartments in downtown San Diego appreciate in value."
But there are nagging problems that arise when governments stress and subsidize core city development. First, there is usually overbuilding -- a risk in San Diego right now. And look at East Village. "The Padres deal is the biggest scandal in the history of San Diego," says Jim Mills, who was president pro tem of the California Senate between 1971 and 1980. "Is it about a ballpark? No. It is about giving [Padres majority owner] John Moores a great deal of property at low prices so he can make an enormous amount of money."
Remember, jobs were a prattling point in the selling of the ballpark, too, although it was obvious that the only significant jobs that would be created were those in construction, which are short-lived. Hamburger flippers and beer vendors would simply move over from Qualcomm to take low-paying jobs at a new location.
Growing up (high-rise) instead of out (sprawl) presents natural risks, too: earthquakes, for example, notes Henderson.
All things considered, McFetridge is proposing the most sensible solution for San Diego: a Rural Lands Initiative that would restrict the number of houses to one per 40 acres in areas just east of county cities, one per 80 in rural areas, and one per 160 in areas outside the County Water Authority boundary. "It's good for the preservation of water resources -- more water will flow into drinking-water reservoirs," says McFetridge.
"It's also helpful on the fire front," he says. "If there is a wildland fire, firefighting resources can manage that, not be diverted to structure protection."
The matter is headed for the ballot in March. Developers and agricultural interests are already lining up money to fight it. They may pull out an old one: save the family farm. But that was always an emotional non sequitur. What the developers have always wanted is to pave over the county, à la Manhattan. They will subliminally note that concrete doesn't burn.
Developers "are already talking the economy, jobs," says McFetridge. They are blowing smoke to exploit a tragic fire.