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Skewed priorities foster a brand of immorality

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 4, 2002

We are an understanding lot, we Americans.

Pinellas County's budget for health care to the needy is being slashed so viciously that hundreds of sick people can't see a doctor.

But we can understand that. It's a tough economy. Belts have to be tightened.

We understand budget cuts and even accept the gobbledygook that bureaucrats use to explain their necessity. Besides, we're tired of our good tax money being wasted on nonproductive poor people. Better to use it to build more stadiums so athletes even sorrier than the current crop can have even more marginal teams on which to play.

Better to use it on pretty things so more tourists will come, and on parking garages so they'll have somewhere to stash their cars when they get here.

We are an understanding people.

So why then were we so outraged when a man bought a strip of property that seemed so worthless at a tax auction and built a fence on it, blocking homeowners' views of a lake after they declined to buy it from him?

From the governor's office down, we freaked.

The man, Don Connolly, immediately became a junior Osama bin Laden, the new object of public revulsion. Legislators scampered. Investigators searched documents, not having to look too deep to discover possible tax violations, possible falsified government applications and maybe even some irregularities in acquiring the very properties that so angered us. They even discovered after enough digging that he bought some properties that were not surrounded by well-off people, but it was the waterfront property that got our attention.

We'll show him. Laws will change. We can't have people buying property encumbered with unpaid taxes, paying the taxes and selling the property at a profit. Isn't that un-American?

We have our legislative priorities in order. Isn't it more critical, after all, for some people to see a lake than for other people to see a doctor?

It sure is, according to some of the ideas floated to stop those like Connolly. In a county and state strapped for cash, a plan to zero out the taxable value of properties such as the ones he bought, effectively dropping them from the tax ledger, has been considered.

It sure is, according to the thinking of the likes of Walter E. Williams, the conservative black college professor who frequently fills in for that great American Rush Limbaugh. Williams, while not addressing the Connolly affair directly, recently illustrated the mind-set to his audience of dittoheads (the name Limbaugh gives his acquiescent listeners).

Essentially, he espoused the notion that people such as those who can afford lakeside homes are more American than those who can't afford, say, health insurance. He audaciously said that the privileges of citizenship should be proportional to wealth, with an individual's vote weighted to reward those who pay higher taxes, perhaps awarding one vote for each $1,000 paid in taxes.

By the same logic, shouldn't those who supposedly hold a greater stake in the country shoulder a greater share of its defense?

From where I sit, one vote per citizen still seems about right. From where I sit, Connolly did nothing more outrageous than pharmaceutical manufacturers and a host of other companies who sell their products to a hopelessly coralled market at exorbitant prices. Yet we don't call them miscreants, as one county commissioner referred to Connolly. We don't call their actions extortion, as the hyperbole surrounding Connolly's behavior often did.

We don't call them immoral as we did Connolly.

We simply grumble a little bit and pay their asking price.

Perhaps the difference is that Connolly's asking price was ridiculously inflated.

Perhaps the difference in reaction is as simple as having a face at which to aim our disgust versus an abstraction, such as a corporation.

My suspicion, though, is that it's not as simple as either of those.

Morality is part of the answer, and not just Connolly's. Certainly, no one would argue that Connolly's attempt to convert an investment of a few hundred dollars into a profit of hundreds of thousands was an act of kindness. But we have come to expect -- even respect -- a degree of ruthlessness in business, as long as it turns a profit.

The profit, though, is usually at the expense of those who can least afford it, not those who own waterfront homes. The governor doesn't lose sleep when a corporation lays off hundreds of workers while raising the multimillion-dollar salary of its CEO. Is that not callous?

A developer doesn't become a miscreant by taking a waterfront view away from many to give it to the few who can afford one of his condos. But isn't that unscrupulous?

Somewhere along America's history of capitalism, right and wrong have gained a material connection.

We barely notice the billions in corporate welfare we pay in order that already overpaid executives can continue to splurge on extravagant luxuries. But the mere hint that a welfare mother may be watching HBO at home sends our blood pressure skyward.

Actually, we already have given the moneyed a greater voice in governing without enacting Williams' suggestion to increase their votes numerically. It'a a fact Connolly knew and used.

Mess with people who have a waterfront view and the wrath of the state crashes down upon you.

Now if we could just think of health care as a lake and the cost of it as a big, pink fence, maybe we could work up enough outrage to bring it down, too.

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