Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Profiles in Florida: Countdown to Rick Scott

Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott is entertaining. The man's career is so defined by devouring hospitals, he sometimes fittingly resembles Leonard Betts, the X-Files character who lived off cancer. Other times he looks like a loose-necked alien that someone stuck in an ill-fitting latex man suit that he's only recently learned to operate. But it's when you look closely at him that his value emerges. Even by the noxiously cynical standards of Florida politics, Scott's candidacy offers something uniquely imperious, baseless and stupid.

First, notice his campaign slogan: change. Virtually every candidate for office in America offers some riff on this word, if not hope, progress, honor, etc. Scott's campaign, however, promises change from "Washington" and "Obama," two things that have nothing to do with Florida and against which he primarily seems to be running. Opposing them is literally his biggest response to Florida's problems. He will address problems ranging from crippling budget shortfalls, collapsing property values and a public school system best described as "massively goddamn thunder-fucked" through a comprehensive program of directing formidable mind-beams against the President and the general D.C. Metro area. Duck and cover, beltway elitists.

Scott also pledges change by governing with Republican values and running the state like a business. Florida has had a Republican governor since 1998 and a Republican-controlled House since 1996. What's more, the Florida GOP and GOP Lite — viz. Florida's fiscally conservative Democrats, like his opponent Alex Sink — have attempted to run the state like a business for two decades. As is the case whenever conservatives run government like a business, they have succeeded, assuming their intended destination was "into the ground." Republicans run their precious government-business things like those dot.com bubble guys ran their insubstantial vaporware companies. They produce nothing, make a lot of loud, aspirational noises about ideas; then eventually someone does due diligence on the books; it turns out they've been bankrupt for decades, and they burned the petty cash on fancy chairs and coke.

Basically Scott offers voters something like the dinner menu from one Pizza Hut and the dinner menu from another Pizza Hut and claims that one is an alternative to the other. Scott then notes that his Pizza Hut menu had a little sticker on the bottom that says other people are to blame for the shittiness of the food. It's not important to him that the food is shitty; it's just important that it's someone else's fault. That doesn't leave him any real "platform." Thus he's tried to make his slogan and his programs seem different by burnishing his personal background. Other Republicans promising change and business solutions to public policy problems got it all wrong because they weren't real businessmen. Scott, on the other hand, is a self-made multi-millionaire. He's bona fide.

Unfortunately, Scott has no political record, gives no indication of possessing more than a glib political or economic philosophy and makes speeches meticulously crafted so as to fling information and substance away from the candidate with great force. So his business record is the only ground upon which he can stand. Here's where his campaign really hits a snag: all the relevant parts of his business record have been sealed by the courts, and he refuses to talk about the rest. This is what makes Scott so uniquely horrible.

Granted, he helped to create a billion-dollar hospital company; he has essentially created an empire without the benefits of inherited wealth and family connections. On the other hand, that company was assessed a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud, the largest in history. (Scott and Columbia/HCA were also investigated by the FBI.) It closed 50 hospitals in Florida and eliminated 6,200 jobs in the state. These circumstances weren't foisted on him by higher-ups but rather chosen by him as CEO. For running a criminal enterprise, Scott was awarded a $10 million payout and over $300 million in stock options. He is a living, breathing caricature of corporate excess and unpunished white collar crime.

In short, Scott asks voters to trust him to run Florida like a business, which means creating jobs and increasing state revenues. He says Floridians can trust him to do so because of his record. His record shows that, under his leadership, his business:
increased profits by closing businesses;
increased profits by eliminating jobs;
made profits by having the government send it checks;
increased profits from the government sending it checks by defrauding the government into sending duplicate checks for the same services;
increased profits from the government sending it checks by defrauding the government into sending checks larger than the actual cost of services.
In this sense, Scott really is the ideal businessman candidate for Florida: a crook so enamored with delusions of his own competence that nothing is beneath his sanctimony. His stump speech is that government is the problem, yet his millions came from sucking so voraciously at the government teat that he ripped the damn thing off. We should believe he has a pedigree of creating opportunity for the little guy, but his goal as CEO was to rapidly jack up stock prices by slashing employment rolls. Then he bailed in a golden parachute as the indictments rained down. Again, he is a living, breathing caricature of corporate excess and unpunished white collar crime.

Why exactly he did these things remains unclear, assuming you desire a more complex explanation than, "Rick Scott is a remorseless, greedheaded, narcissistic scumbag who thinks that the rules apply to everyone else and that the poor should have their bones ground to powder small so he can do rails of them off the marble countertop of an executive bathroom." Given the actual details of his business background, Scott wisely refuses to answer anything but the vaguest questions about it. His record speaks for itself. It's just that his record is that of a habitual liar with nothing to express except sociopathy and avarice. Cutting jobs is irrelevant next to profits. Fraud is irrelevant when you don't end up in jail. Laws and fraud are immaterial because the profits exist. Rick Scott's vow to Florida is that he'll run it in a morally bankrupt fashion in which the state depends entirely on federal money while being contemptuous of federal prerogatives like truth and laws.

Just take his word for it, because documentation is a hassle. The FBI investigation of his company means nothing. That Scott once took the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination over 75 times in a deposition should not trouble you. The fact that he admitted doing so to prevent prosecutors' "fishing expeditions," a blithely imperial violation of the law for his own amusement, should just make him look mavericky. People who believe in government plead the Fifth Amendment and just do what it says. Entrepreneurs plead it and do whatever the fuck they want. And he will do whatever the fuck he wants for you.

Nevertheless, some vague items related to actual governance manage to slip out of the Scott campaign upon occasion like embarrassed farts. For instance, he has pledged to hack property taxes by 19%. Florida is nearly bankrupt, has no income tax and routinely ranks in the bottom five states in the country in terms of tax burden. Of course, a property tax cut remarkably like Scott's proposal immediately preceded the state's real-estate market collapse, which has seen local government payrolls slashed. Another round of property tax cuts could prove at worst disastrous and at best risky and unwise. But this is no concern to Scott. Governments and their tax are the redistribution of wealth, and in any case, it's not like he's going to use a public park or have to take his child to a library or to glance at a low-income urban area or, ahahaha, live in the lower-elevation neighborhood that will be flooded by a new development's sewage backflow.

The last would likely only make Scott happy, as it would give further ammunition for his perverse Ahab-like obsession with destroying the Florida Department of Community Affairs. The DCA is an innocuous state agency that ensures that new developments comply with municipal and county planning regulations (environmental, historical, hazard mitigation, etc.). On paper, it seems like an unnecessary agency, because municipal and county governments could enforce their planning regulations. Thinking like that, however, is explicitly un-Florida. Please allow a moment's indulgence to explain how developments in Florida are made on, say, the county level:
1. You are a developer. You want to build 500 houses in the county.
2. The planning department notes that 500 houses will require bulldozing wetlands or a historic neighborhood or some other poor-people thing, so you will have to pay an environmental impact fee, pay to relocate the historic neighborhood or not build at all.
3. You tell this to the County Commissioner whose election campaign you bankrolled 10% of, because you are a wealthy developer.
4. The planning department presents its findings at the Board of County Commissioners meeting, at which point your County Commissioner moves that you be granted an exemption from both restrictions on building and paying any fees for doing so, based on some fantasy that another blot-shaped treeless Omega Man zone of ranch-housed crudscape is going to finally turn around the economy of a county that's entirely made up of developments like that.
5. Just for the hell of it, the BoCC exempts you from a shitload of other taxes or fees.
Speaking of which, here's how the other part of that farcical dance goes:
1. You are a developer. You want to build 500 houses in the county.
2. The planning department notes that these 500 houses will put roughly 1,000 new motorists on the roads in this part of the county, choking the flow of traffic. They demand that you spend $20 million in concurrency fees to widen roads and bridges to the neighborhoods, create new stoplights and signage and perhaps even build an on-ramp addition to an existing highway.
3. You tell this to the County Commissioner whose election campaign you bankrolled 10% of, because you are a wealthy developer.
4. The planning department presents its findings at the Board of County Commissioners meeting, at which point your County Commissioner moves that you be granted an exemption for paying concurrency fees for 25 years.
5. An entire neighborhood, and everyone else who uses these roads, commutes through hell for 20 years.
6. Before the 25 years are up, the county realizes that the traffic problem has become so severe that they must rehabilitate and expand traffic arteries before your bill is due, funding them through an emergency bond issue. This obviates the need for you to pay anything, because your concurrency fees were tied to old projected road upgrades made by county planning staff 20 years ago, all of which have been superseded and overridden by the plans for the new bond issue. Thus the taxpayer has just funded your concurrency fees, which means you've bilked him twice, because back during the concurrency fees meeting...
7. Just for the hell of it, the BoCC exempted you from a shitload of other taxes or fees.
This is the PG version of Florida development at the county level. The entire state is like this. The R-rated version has the same degree of horse trading but involves something gratuitous, like a public servant receiving a blowjob from a man or woman with the sort of pigmentation they usually mention to scare their constituents into voting.

This doesn't happen at the DCA, though. DCA employees work at the state level, and they're career analysts — public servants who actually had to learn something to be employed by the public. They don't run for office, so they can't be bought off so easily, and being tasked with working on things that exist in objective reality makes it harder for them to say things like, "Well of course no one needs this block of century-old Cuban houses when they could use that space to shop for a brand new Chevrolet! Let's help you pay for it!" Naturally, every GOP politician for at least a decade has at some point called for or approved of the dissolution of the DCA.

The DCA is just like those jerks from the FBI or the HHS who tried to make Rick Scott answer questions about stealing millions of dollars of taxpayer money. They resist collusion and fraud because they are anti-business. So, Scott naturally wants to destroy the DCA as part of his "government austerity" program. The DCA is yet another lead-footed socialistic bureaucracy holding up progress — shining glorious flat-earthed, ranch-housed, winding-streeted, "Whispering Glades at Miramar"-named progress. The future is ticky-tacky, and it will all look the same.

Nevermind that Florida is glutted with brand-new unsold houses and with citizens irresponsible people trapped in older homes they can't sell without taking a punitive loss. Rick Scott knows what the public already understands: that it's currently just too onerous for the lions of real estate to build suburban housing in Florida. Rick Scott understands the heartache, the loss confronting multi-millionaire real estate developers and building contractors. They only want want to restart the economic engine of building things because they know that when you build crap — any crap, anywhere — then you are rich.

Sure, if you want to be anti-business, you can harp on how Florida was arguably the state most devastated by the real estate collapse. And, sure, if you don't work for a living, you can still visit whole subdivisions of empty houses, waist-high grass and packs of wild dogs. You can do that if you're one of those horrible Obama Washingtons against which Scott has bravely oriented himself. But Scott is a real man — a business-man. And he's going to just fucking double down on the same public/private strategy that helped cause the first real-estate collapse in Florida: build, build, build houses and pray that people will come in and flip, flip, flip them onto yet another greater fool. Because we are Americans, and we pass the hot potatoes.

So not only does Scott's housing solution resemble Chief Clancy Wiggum's theory of deep hole escape, "No, dig up, stupid!" but it also relies on the same free-market bromides and unsubstantiated wishful thinking the state GOP has peddled for decades. Again, assuming that you are a developer, his thinking goes something like this:
We can bankroll cutting taxes by eliminating the DCA.
The DCA impedes your new development.
Your new development will stimulate the economy by your earning money and... something else happening, which we map on this graph with: ???
Despite an absence of taxes, this economic stimulus will result in your generating tax revenue by your being so stupid that you pay all of the remaining shred of taxation to which you are subject, and also because of ????
This will fund the state government. Also, entrepreneurship. Lastly, America.
The irony here is that the DCA already does the last part. Municipal and county governments excitedly roll over for new development like a disturbingly obsequious dog. Sure, he loves you, but he's kind of embarrassingly fawning, and his fascination with your crotch does neither of you any good.

The DCA ensures that you pay taxes and fees commensurate with new development, filling state coffers with actual, real money and not hypothetical Heisenbergian Laffer Curve fun-bucks. Then, hopefully, your new new development spurs economic activity. Or it doesn't, and someone buys the land and does something else with it. The current system, when functioning well, is a win-win for the public and would be perfect except that it allows for an unacceptable risk that you may actually lose money on a bad business deal. Scott wants to replace it with win-???-???-???-???-win, with the four interceding steps all being conditional ones from Adam Smith and Donald Duck's cel-shaded mathemagic land.

Of course, this argument relies on the DCA functioning well, and currently it does not. The GOP and Scott have a ready-made argument against its — and countless other state agencies' —continued existence in that it does hold up new development by taking longer than necessary to sign off on it. As with all government-efficiency arguments at this late stage of the culture war, the DCA came to this point after the GOP-controlled Florida congress de-funded the hell out of it. This follows the grand tradition of the GOP proving that government is the problem by intervening to make it a problem. The DCA currently operates with insufficient personnel and has been doing so for enough years that qualified employees have long since taken the cutback hint and decamped for places with greater security, better compensation and the prospect of not having to do three jobs for the cost of one because their co-workers are dropping like the ten little indians.

This is what happened to the EPA under Bush: they were beleaguered, understaffed, unresponsive and beaten and trained until they malfunctioned to prove a point. The GOP is the kid who "accidentally" drops his textbook in a puddle and thinks that ruining it means that he won't have to do math anymore. Just kill the DCA. Regulation will happen better; County Commission horse-trading will disappear, just 'cause. Progress will flow like milk and honey. There will be no consequences. They're from the government and they're here to help — OOOOOOOOOHHHH!!!

While it may be emblematic of his overall commitment to massive deregulation, the DCA represents a blip in Scott's greater 7-7-7 Plan, which uses seven steps to supposedly create 700,000 Florida jobs in seven years. Nevermind that the St. Petersburg Times points out that Scott just rounded this up, and that by his own math it only creates — even by the unaccountable terms of its own free market magic, using the arithmetic of TAX CUTS+???=JOBS — about 650,000 new jobs, an employment discrepancy greater than the number of people employed in Hernando County.

The weird numerology is a lot more important than 50,000 people. And nevermind that Scott's own experience shows that he's much better at eliminating jobs for profit. If only somehow the State of Florida could inflate its governmental coffers by acquiring the State of Georgia, terminating half of Georgia's workforce and then selling Florida Shares to some other state before retiring to an even smaller Florida just off the coast, Florida would be home free.

Scott requires this kind of magic to make his ideas work, because none of the fundamental elements actually do. As is the case with DCA, his first vision for jump-starting the Florida economy is eliminating regulation, which is not only counterproductive because regulating is a job, but also because doing so cuts immediate, actual revenue from fees while potentially inflating enormous infrastructural and environmental obligations down the road.

With taxes, his ideas are no less fantastical. We have to cut more of them to raise revenues in a state that's been cutting them back, from an already low threshold, for ages. Somehow this death by a thousand cuts will result in a complete payoff down the road. It's the economic equivalent of believing that no one in football can score unless they make a perfect 100-yard touchdown, then deliberately false-starting to be penalized half the distance to the goal line again and again without once realizing that, mathematically, the goal is an impossibility. Florida's future is Zeno's turtle, moonwalking.

To an absence of regulation and taxes he adds the empty promise of trimming the fat in a state that's operated with a non-functioning economy for as long as anyone can remember. Cities and counties have been steadily downsizing everything but police and firemen since 2007. Still, Scott sees opportunity where others don't mainly because his talent for government number crunching is about as strong as his ability to accurately bill Medicare. The most illuminating example of budget crusading comes in the form of his prison plan. (This, more than anything else, probably accounts for the policeman's union's endorsement of his opponent Alex Sink, which was covered here.)

Scott believes he can cut $1 billion from the Department of Corrections' annual budget via the following three strategies:
1. Using more competitive salaries/benefits structures.
2. Having the prison population grow its own food.
3. Seeking competitive healthcare bid contracts.
Again, Scott's forward-thinking stimuli for fixing Florida's economy relies on cutting functional parts of the existing one. Scott wants to get us spending and creating jobs, but item #1 is just proactive-speak for cutting salaries and benefits, firing anyone who makes too much or who won't take a pay cut, then replacing them with less expensive and untrained personnel.

Evidently, the best way of improving a state that functions largely off a retail consumer economy is to make sure citizens inject less money into it. Item #2 is itself a joke, as Florida inmates already grow a substantial percentage of their own food, topping out their daily meal bill at about $2.30. (But we can cut that; they're subhumans anyway.) Finally, anybody who's lived in this state for more than a year and who doesn't seriously expect that item #3 will involve switching contracts so that they're won by someone Scott knows probably can't even register signs of Thetans on one of the free tests administered at the Scientology Center in Clearwater.

But the best part of all, the one that makes you think of making ends meet by billing Uncle Sam for an MRI when you just got some ibuprofen, is this: Scott's projected prison budget reductions rely on calculating the state's daily expenditure on prisoners at $71.93. That's $19.93 more than the State of Florida actually spends on them. Rick Scott has bold new free-market solutions to problems he's invented. I can fix your life the same way. Let me illustrate:
YOU: I can't seem to make ends meet. I really want to send my daughter to college, but it'll cost me $700 per week that I don't have.
ME: You have a $100 per day cocaine habit. With my program of your not snorting cocaine, you will save $700 per week more than you do now.
YOU: But I don't have a $100 per day cocaine habit!
ME: You're welcome. Obamacare.
This is the essence of Rick Scott. Smug solutions offered without explanation, in response to things he's stopped paying attention to, after seeing what he wanted to see. The only thing missing from the above vignette is Scott's snotty outrage whenever someone has the inhuman gall to ask him a question germane to the conduct of the public office he seeks. Scott gets as incensed when you ask about his future as he does when you ask about his past. He lives only in the present, for the passage of time is incriminating, and he pleads the Fifth.

He promises to create jobs, because jobs are good. But he won't acknowledge the negative impacts of his eliminating them, either as a businessman or when gutting the public budget as governor. He sniffs noisily when people suggest that stimulating the economy by cutting salaries, eliminating public-sector jobs and removing one agency which reliably enforces collection of impact fees that otherwise redound on the state might not be sound. Of course, he doesn't explain it; he just exudes contempt. It's better for him to maintain the illusion that you're too stupid to understand his ideas than explain them and run the risk of proving that, not only can anyone grasp them, they're also abjectly moronic.

Contempt lies at the heart of the Scott campaign, contempt for the real's inability to resemble the imaginary. This kind of contempt is fundamentally necessary to someone who styles himself as a self-made millionaire when his single most profitable business rewarded him with money stolen on a historic scale from the government, which was already handing much of it out anyway. Only contempt can propose fixing a broke state by telling it not to be so spendthrift, by telling it not to collect revenues now so as to inflate the punitive impact costs of the future, by telling it to cut $1 billion annually via pursuit of alternatives already being pursued or by lowering a daily prisoner expenditure that's already 27% lower than his own estimates.

Contempt is the key. Florida already lies back and spreads its legs for any businessman of a certain caliber. It already waives impact fees and regulations while offering huge new-business tax breaks on already ludicrously low taxes. Florida will do anything you ask if you have the right party affiliation and enough zeroes before the decimal point in your net worth. Not only will everyone in charge put on a song and dance for you, they'll give you a kickback just for watching.

Yet, for some reason, Rick Scott has spent over 73 million of his own dollars for the chance to run the show himself. It requires a healthy contempt to want to rig a system that's already rigged to give you almost everything you want. It's not enough that he can have anything he desires at an insignificant cost to himself. It's important that he takes it. Not having to ask is its own reward. The actual material consequences, the stupid exigencies that bundled together comprise reality, are an inconvenience to be dispensed with by a sneering lip and a flurry of checks, by a cash cloud rearranging itself into a preferred tableau of America that comforts the privileged at the tiny cost of blotting out everyone else's daylight. Rick Scott is the kind of wealthy man who rapes a prostitute.

By this time tomorrow, he will probably be governor.

Follow-up: Profiles in Florida: Rick Scott's Daily Kill Count