Thursday, July 8, 2010

Governor Moonbeam or The Overpaid Corporate Bigwig

California will elect a new Governor on November 2nd. Whoever it will be, that person will be following in the footsteps of Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger towards a greater tomorrow. So let's look at who we have to select from so that we can be depressed.

Meg Whitman and the eBay myth

The online auction website was founded on September 3, 1995, by French-born Iranian computer programmer Pierre Omidyar. Jeffrey Skoll was hired as the first president of the company in early 1996. While eBay was already profitable at the time Skoll joined, he wrote the business plan that eBay followed from its emergence as a start-up to a great success. He remained President until the arrival of Meg Whitman in January 1998.

Meg Whitman was hired as eBay President and CEO in March 1998. At the time, the company had 30 employees half a million users and revenues of $4.7 million in the United States. eBay went public on September 21, 1998, and both Omidyar and Skoll became instant billionaires. eBay's target share price of $18 was all but ignored as the price went to $53.50 on the first day of trading.

Omidyar and his wife in 2004 founded the Omidyar Network, a that invests in and helps scale innovative organizations to catalyze economic, social, and political change.

In 2004 Skoll became the founder, chairman and owner of Participant Media which he created to fund feature films and documentaries that promote social values while still being commercially viable. Its first three films were Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and North Country along with the documentary Murderball. These films accounted for 11 Oscar nominations in 2006.

Subsequent films have included;

  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • American Gun
  • Fast Food Nation
  • The World According to Sesame Street
  • Charlie Wilson's War
  • The Kite Runner
  • Angels in the Dust
  • Jimmy Carter Man from Plains
  • The Visitor
  • Chicago 10
  • Standard Operating Procedure
  • The Soloist
  • Food Inc
  • The Informant
  • The Cove
  • The Crazies
  • Pressure Cooker
  • Oceans

Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to vote for either Pierre Omidyar, the creator of eBay, or Jeffrey Skoll, the person who designed the business plan for the company. So we have to look at Whitman's performance there.

Whitman continued as CEO of eBay until March 2008. She appeared to do well during the company's growth stage, but much less well as the company became large and mature. The state of California, of course, is a large and mature organization. So she decided to run for Governor.

eBay stock price hit its historic price high on December 29, 2004. Here's want happened from that point on until she left, when eBay actually needed an effective CEO, with the NASDAQ for comparison (click here for a large version):

Investors had their reasons for reacting negatively to Whitman's direction of the company those last three years. Whitman's campaign told one news reporter: "The decisions she made during that period were designed to make eBay a stronger company built for the long haul...." Measured by share value, compared to the NASDAQ eBay has underperformed since she left.

Whitman left eBay March 1, 2008. By early April share prices had climbed 23% for some reason. Of course, in the next 12 months the economy crashed and so did eBay's share prices.

If Skoll or even Omidyar were running for Governor based on their apparent wisdom and experience, one might be tempted to vote for them.

Whitman was not an entrepreneur. Prior to eBay a General Manager in Hasbro's Playskool Division where she was in charge of the Mr. Potato Head brand and responsible for importing the Teletubbies into the U.S. How she's avoided being labeled with one of those brands is anybody's guess.

Based on her record, Whitman was a corporate ladder-climber, a typical early 21st Century hired CEO, enriching herself, making bad acquisitions of other companies, outsourcing labor, and generally not contributing much to society. Just another overpaid corporate bigwig. Now she wants to try her hand in politics and government, as the Governor of California. If she wins, she'll be California's first woman Governor.

Jerry Brown: What the Governor Moonbeam label meant

In 1978 then Governor Jerry Brown was nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" because he proposed the establishment of a state space academy and the purchasing of a satellite that would be launched into orbit to provide emergency communications for the state. In a Rolling Stone interview his then girlfriend Linda Ronstadt referred to him as her "Little Moonbeam." Columnist Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times picked up on it and Brown's proposal, offering the nickname "Governor Moonbeam."

This is, of course, an amusing anecdote with everyone noting that Royko in 1992 commented, while disavowing the nickname, that Brown was just as serious as any other politician.

People remember other such amusing things about Brown. He refused to live in the newly-constructed Governor's Residence, renting a modest apartment. Instead of riding in a chauffeured limousine, he rode in a chauffeured Plymouth Satellite.

But besides being a quirky B-class celebrity dating an A-class celebrity pop star, he was also Governor. Early in his term, he prevented the State of California from building badly needed freeways, a construction freeze that put the state so far behind that when construction began again construction costs had inflated requiring the state to scale down plans that could have been accomplished during Brown's term. This was typical of his ideas, removed from the reality of California. Californian's weren't going to quite driving cars in the early 1970's nor will they now.

Then we get to 1978, when he earned his nickname "Governor Moonbeam." For reasons beyond comprehension, the press seems to not notice that it was also the year Proposition 13 passed. Regardless of the political arguments between the tax cut advocates and those trying to support schools, police, etc. services, Proposition 13 made a significant structural change in California government, a change that did not bode well for the future. As with all government, it takes a long time to see what the full results of such a change will be. Those chickens have come home to roost in the second decade of the 21st Century in the form of a bankrupt state and local government structure.

While Brown was delaying the inevitable construction of freeways and proposing a state space academy, as Governor for three years he became one of the primary reasons Proposition 13 passed. The Washington Post noted:

As incomes and property values rose, Sacramento's tax revenue soared—but the parsimonious Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, neither spent those funds nor rebated them. With the state sitting on a $5 billion surplus, frustrated Californians grumped to the polls and passed Proposition 13, which rolled back and then froze property taxes—effectively destroying the funding base of local governments and school districts, which thereafter depended largely on Sacramento for their revenue. Ranked fifth among the states in per-pupil spending during the 1950s and '60s, California sank to the mid-40s by the 1990s.

And as Governor after Proposition 13, he and Assembly Speaker Willy Brown (no relation) failed to prepare California government for the new reality. Governor Moonbeam had no idea what to do.

Since then, he has run failed campaigns for President. After being elected Mayor of Oakland he discovered the City had a City Manager. So he successfully eliminated the City Manager position, gaining power for himself. It's tough to find a successful program he started and accomplished during his tenure, but he did frequently elevate his celebrity status with publicity stunts like leaving the Democratic Party only to re-register as a Democrat a short while later.

Even though he initially failed the state bar exam, had never practiced criminal law, nor practiced any serious civil law, and was ineligible to practice law because of his voluntary inactive status in the State Bar of California from January 1, 1997 to May 1, 2003, in 2004 having nothing else to do he ran for and was elected Attorney General of California in 2004.

Now he wants to be Governor again. Make no mistake about it. "Governor Moonbeam" is an appropriate nickname. Like moonlight, his brightness is simply a diffuse reflection of popular ideas, political fads really. Like the moon, he appears in cycles as a political celebrity moving tides of fluid voter support that is high at one point and low the next. And while sunlight is the energy that supports life, a moonbeam is only a weak reflection of a sunbeam.

Only because he deserves to be punished for his failures as Governor in the 1970's would I vote to put Jerry Brown in the position of presiding over the financially bankrupt State government for the next four years.

He also would set some dubious records: (1) the oldest governor of California at the time of inauguration; (2) the longest elapsed period (nearly 28 years) between serving two non-consecutive terms as governor; and (3) at the end of a four year term he would become the longest-serving governor.

Other Candidates

Other candidates will be on the ballot. Voting for one of them will be the proverbial "tilting at windmills." While in their respective party primaries, Democrat Brown got nearly 2 million votes and Republican Whitman got nearly 1.5 million votes, American Independent Party candidate Chelene Nightingale garnered 23,272 votes, Libertarian Party candidate Dale Ogden got 16,842 votes, Green Party candidate Laura Wells got 16,654 votes, and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Carlos Alvarez got 1,853 votes (not even a majority in his party). Nightingale and Ogden appeal to different elements of the political right. Wells appeals to the political left.

Since there is only one leftist candidate, a review Green Party candidate Laura Wells, who has tilted at windmills with some effort for awhile now, gives some sense of what's out there. In 2002 and 2006, Wells ran campaigns for State Controller, receiving 419,873 votes in 2002, the most ever for a Green Party candidate in a statewide partisan race in California. She directly focuses on the policy issues which, of course, are never seriously discussed by either major party candidate.

  • Regarding property taxes, she says provisions of Proposition 13 must be changed, in part because it primarily benefits corporations over individuals, and favors use of a "split-roll tax" to keep cap residential property taxes while allowing higher property taxes for businesses.
  • Regarding the continuing budget stalemate in the Legislature she favors lowering the margin needed to pass a budget and raise taxes in the state from two-thirds to a simple majority.
  • Regarding the health care crisis, she supports a Single Payer Universal Health Care solution for California.
  • Regarding energy and the environment sh advocates the use of clean, sustainable, local energy, including publicly-owned utilities, Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) and localized (distributed) electricity generation, instead of nuclear power or carbon sequestration.
  • Regarding the banking industry, she opposes bailouts of large corporations and proposes the creation of a State Bank for California which could partner with local banks and credit unions, and potentially improve their ability to lend.

These ideas may or may not be perfect, but they address the issues that most affect the collapsing California economy and the bankruptcy of the State. Unfortunately, a Google News Search pulls up not one article about Wells in a major newspaper since the primary. In may she is mentioned in a San Jose Mercury News article headlined Governor's race is full on the fringe.

And so, the media has consigned the two political right candidates and the one political left candidate to "the fringe" even though they talk about issues and offer serious proposals. Of course that is probably best for them, as the Governor cannot accomplish anything without the support of the Legislature. California has not had a third party Governor unless one counts Hiram Johnson. He was originally was elected as a Republican in 1910 but then joined with Teddy Roosevelt to form the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912 and was re-elected in 1914, but was elected to the U.S. Senate taking office in March 1917.

The next Governor, by default, is going to have a failed term. It seems appropriate that it will be either Governor Moonbeam or the overpaid corporate bigwig.

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