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Five Pound Box of Money (Empty)

By Frank Gruber

My favorite Christmas song is Pearl Bailey's "Five-Pound Box of Money."

The lyric starts like this:

Hey, Santa Claus
You want to make me happy this year?
Listen to me, honey.
Give Pearl something that'll be of some use to me,
Like a five-pound box of money.

It's about 330 shopping days 'til Christmas, so why am I thinking of "Five-Pound Box of Money?"

Well, it's that time of year in Santa Monica when money is Subject A.

Come January, when the City starts the six-month budget process, everyone starts looking for that big box of money.

Then this year there's the state's fiscal crisis, the root of the empty box problem.

We live in this rich age and bountiful place and effortlessly produce bigger cars and larger portions of soda and a wide variety of telephone ring tones, and yet we can't marshal our resources for our collective needs, except when times are so good that we don't notice a little money slipping almost by accident into the common pot until people who've got their own complain that we need to cut taxes.

What happened to tightening belts when times were bad and saving for a rainy day when times were good?

Nothing was more depressing than the debacle over the car tax. A few years ago you had a Republican governor, Pete Wilson, and a Democratic legislature combining to do something sensible. They reduced taxes when there was a surplus, but agreed on a trigger to go back to the old rate when there was a deficit.

Then you know what happened. The economy pulled the trigger, and, voila!, before you could say Schatzi-on-Main, we had a new governor.

There are certain expenses -- for education and taking care of the poor, the lame and the halt, and for basic services like police and fire protection, and the justice system -- that we as a society have to put ahead of our personal consumption. That's not a new concept -- in fact, it's in the Bible as an integral part of our moral tradition.

There are other collective expenses, such as for infrastructure, that may not have the same moral imperative, but which help us all produce more wealth and live better.

But our leaders tell us the opposite. They promote themselves as Santa Clauses there to give away boxes of money. They say we need to consume. They say that if we consume, we will have prosperity, and when we have prosperity, then we can afford to pay for education, health care, and basic services.

Do we become prosperous by consuming more? That sounds strange to me. Am I better off if I buy more clothes, or can I buy more clothes if I'm better off?

Our prosperity, the wealth that allows us to consume so much, is based on productivity. Productivity is based on investment and education, not consumption.

I don't want the whole money tree
What good is that big thing to me
You keep the branches, you keep the trunk and the root
'Cause all I want is a just a little bit of the fruit.

In the Santa Monica context, the whole money tree is the City's budget. You have to give the City of Santa Monica credit because over the years it has recognized that one has to invest in one's fiscal health.

As a result, Santa Monica is usually, and for governments, uncommonly, in control of its budgetary destiny.

Every year at this time the City Council listens to all those people who just want a little bit of the fruit. ("Council Weighs Budget Priorities," January 29, 2003)

It's tempting for the City to say that the money it collects is for municipal purposes only, or even for municipal programs first.

I'm not unsympathetic, and I'm one of those consumers of City services who wants more and better.

But unfortunately the City, like it or not, has a bigger responsibility. It cannot ignore all the fruit grabbers, because the other institutions that provide crucial services to our community, from the School District to social service agencies, do not have control over their fiscal destinies and have limited means to tap into our community's resources.

So the City has to prioritize with not only its own programs in mind. I agree, it's not the job the City Council was elected to do, or that the City Manager was hired to do, but it's the hand the voters of California have dealt them.

Money isn't everything
There's no two ways about it
But while we're here, Santa Dear,
It's much better with than without it.

Another idea the City is considering is to raise the transient occupancy tax, a/k/a the hotel tax. I've always thought hitting up the hotels, and, by extension, the tourists, for more money was a cop-out and counter-productive as something that would make Santa Monica less competitive as a destination.

But an increase might make sense given that our hotel tax is lower than that of Los Angeles. For that matter, the same goes for our parking rates, which also are lower than most of our competitors'.

Santa, dear,
The new year, oh, it would be so bright and sunny,
Just bring me that little simple thing I've been speaking to you about,
Like that, like, maybe a five-pound box of money, that's all, that's all.

Then there's the state and the governor's bond issue that we vote on in a month. Can someone tell me what to do about this? I don't want government to shut down, but how can I vote for something as wrongheaded as this bond?

It's like, give us a five-pound box of money and we'll give you ten pounds back.
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