Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaming the System

America’s favorite pastime is no longer baseball; it is gaming the system, whatever the particular system may happen to be. And no state may be quite as good as Ohio, or any city in Ohio as good as Portsmouth, at gaming the system.

What is meant by “gaming the system” is when the players in any system, by breaking or at least manipulating the rules, subvert the system for their individual advancement or enrichment. Two large systems currently being gamed to death are Wall Street and major league baseball. The recent international financial meltdown was the result of financial players making enormous profits by bending and breaking the rules, that is by gaming the unregulated sector of the financial system. Banks had to play by rules that were instituted after the the Crash of 1929, but players in hedge funds and derivatives did not. Hedge funds and derivatives did not have to report their holdings and activities; did not have to maintain a minimum balance; did not have to make an accounting to federal or state agencies; did not, generally, have to do anything that would interfere with their freedom to game the system and fleece investors of billions.

A corresponding kind of deregulation and gaming took place in major league baseball. Because of lax oversight by the office of the baseball commissioner and the collusion of the union, cheating players were able to use performance enhancing drugs and supplements to bulk up like the Hulk and break records with banal frequency. When he appeared to testify before a committee in Washington, the retired slugger Mark McGwire, no longer on steroids, looked like the incredible shrunken man. Not just McGwire’s, but many of the records set in the major leagues in the last twenty years have become suspect, and the integrity of the game, and the huge profits tied to it, are in jeopardy.

Shadow Government

In Portsmouth, unscrupulous lawyers and developers have been gaming the system for almost half a century. They are able to do it in part because a form of deregulation took place in the early 1960s with the creation of a so-called “community improvement corporation,” which morphed into the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership. The SOGP is a private corporation, but, in conjunction with its acronymic cronies, the GPEC, CAOSC, SOPA, etc., it has become a shadow government with much more money and power at its disposal than the pathetic city government that operates out of the Municipal Building. In 1964, the Portsmouth City Council declared that the predecessor of the SOGP, the Portsmouth Area Community Improvement Corporation, had a mandate To promote the health, safety, morals [sic!] and general welfare of the inhabitants of the community . . .” “General welfare,” is a broad category that can and apparently has meant anything and everything having to do with the citizens of Portsmouth, including high school athletics.

What safeguards and rules did the City Council establish to insure the SOGP was not going to abuse its mandate and pull any fast ones? None whatsoever. The City Council provided the SOGP with a blank check, allowing the unelected and unregulated members of the SOGP, and their colluding allies, to fill in the blanks and do what they wanted, and what they wanted, not surprisingly, was usually to promote their own interests. Unlike public officials, the SOGP does not need to rely on or seek approval from voters. The SOGP does not need to placate the most vocal group in any community, the taxpaying property owners. The SOGP relies instead on rebates, dowager dollars, and, in particular, pork, a financial steroid provided by the government. Rebates, dowager dollars and pork provide the SOGP and its surrogates with the money to finance “community improvements,” which include everything from new offices for the SOGP (the Welcome Center) to a new high school athletic complex, a complex as impressive, according to original designs, as the televangelist Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, in California. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, in one of the most chronically depressed crime- and drug-ridden cities in Ohio, a multi- million dollar high school athletic complex is being built in the center of the city. In any other chronically depressed city, a multi-million dollar high school athletic complex might not rank near the top of municipal priorities, especially since the city already owns a historic municipal football stadium (built for the forerunners of the Detroit Lions) and a baseball field that has served high school athletes and a minor league base team well enough until now.

Shell Games within Shell Games

It’s one thing when children or adolescents play games; it’s another when dishonest adults do. The game the adults are playing is, in effect, pin the tail on the donkey, the donkey in this case being the hard-pressed property owners of Portsmouth, and the tail that is pinned on them being the property taxes that will be used to help pay for the long term maintenance of the athletic complex. Shell games are being played within shell games, a shell game being a swindle in which something of value (millions of dollars) is paid to Hatcher for something of little or no value (the blighted property he acquired to build a mall that did not materialize). Will the athletic complex bring new revenues into the city? Not likely. The tax base of the downtown area, further depleted by the new non-taxpaying public university will be further eroded by removing hundreds of additional acres of property permanently from the city’s tax base.

If we can’t have a mall, or a gambling casino, let’s have a high school athletic complex that is one part Woody Hayes and three parts Donald Trump. How did Portsmouth, without debate or the approval of voters, get a multi-million-dollar high school athletic complex? The athletic complex is the result not of a pressing need or of long-range careful planning but rather of the need to bail out the local developer, Neal Hatcher, who had acquired hundreds of pieces of property in the center of the city with the aim of building a mall. He ended up owning at least twenty-three pieces of property on John Street, once the la Rue Saint-Denis of Portsmouth’s prostitutes. Hatcher’s mall never materialized, just as the mall back in 1980 never materialized. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Portsmouth’s dream of a mall is insane. The craziness resulted in Hatcher having on his hands hundreds of pieces of property he helped blight, acquired through means both underhanded and heavy handed, such as eminent domain, means that have made him infamous locally.

Go Bucks!

With the cooperation of our corrupt city government, money laundering foundations, and the Portsmouth City School system, he unloaded his mall-apropism off on the public, just as the Marting Foundation did the Marting building, just as the Thatchers did their house on Franklin Boulevard, just as Dr. Rooney did his house on Camelot Drive, just as George Clayton did his Kenrick’s building on Second Street, and just as Dr. Singer did his festering eyesore on Washington Street. But when it comes to gaming the system, none of these crooks can compare to Hatcher, who is the Woody Hayes of Portsmouth and whose war cry should be (what else?) “Go Bucks!”

I love football and played it in high school and would not have gone on to college if I hadn't. But think of the pressure on high school athletes who will have to prove worthy of this Roman- or Trojan-like high school complex. Think of what will happen if the team ever ends a season with a 1 and 9 record, as Woody Hayes did in 1940, at New Philadelphia High School. Think of the scandals we have to look forward to when high school coaches and athletes cut the ethical corners that have historically been cut at Ohio State to meet the expectations of rabid Buckeye fans like Mike Mearan shouting, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” In a state where being number one in anything else appeared out or reach, being number one in college football was all that was left. If having “Road Rage” Hayes stomping the sidelines, punching reporters, officials, and even players; if having a notorious sore loser like him as coach and playing a schedule that somehow managed to avoid Notre Dame, the perennial powerhouse; if that was the price Ohio had to pay to be number one in something, well so be it.

Let’s hope Portsmouth can avoid similar shenanigans, but don’t bet on it. If you believe winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing; if you say you believe in competition but fix games and that you believe in democracy but “fix” city officials the way dowagers do lapdogs; if you say you believe in God but worship money, then you can’t help cheating, you can’t help gaming the system, because that’s the only way you can win. The current recession has resulted in the postponement of half of the athletic complex, but of course not the half that includes the football stadium. What we have to look forward to, however grim the next couple of years may be, is not bread and circuses, but Crispie Cream donuts and high school football games. Let the gaming begin!