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The Business Forum
The Parking Ethic and the Spirit of
A recent article in the
San Francisco Chronicle
reports that that fair city’s Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) is
facing a $19.8 million deficit. There would be nothing particularly
newsworthy in this report, if we restrict ourselves to the observation that
deficits of this magnitude are now pretty much expected of large municipal
However, what has
precipitated a not insignificant response of public ire and angst is the
MTA’s proposed method for funding its more than trivial shortfall. In a
display of managerial arrogance and creativity that seems endemic to
California – and especially San Francisco – the MTA proposes to climb out of
its budgetary abyss by generating yet more revenue from parking citations.
Of course, there is little reason to believe that MTA management would have
the slightest qualms about funding a mere $19 million deficit in this
manner, when indeed its existing budget base includes $86 million in revenue
already derived from the same source.
At this point, before really
looking at the consequences of this Orwellian fiscal strategy, let us pause
and consider a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless related subject.
It has been eight years and
a century since the publication of Max Weber’s classic work on social
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. So, you ask,
what does that have to do with parking citations -- did Weber, who died in
1920 from the Spanish influenza, even know how to drive an automobile? This
may prompt some wags to respond, well, if he did and he came to San
Francisco, he most assuredly would get a parking citation – a proposition
which will undoubtedly next appear as the subject of some plodding graduate
Nonetheless, Weber’s theory
of the protestant ethic directly bears on the MTA’s inability to address
both morally and ethically its budgetary failure.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism it will be
remembered that Weber proposed that Calvin’s theology of the elect and the
reprobate fueled the emergence of capitalism throughout the West – with its
most successful forms being the British mercantile and American
free-enterprise political economies. His thesis was simple; the acquisition
of capital demonstrates personal success, and personal success in turn
demonstrates that, if you play by the rules, you cleanse yourself of Adamic
sin and the prospect of eternal damnation – something akin to trying to find
a parking space in downtown San Francisco.
Unfortunately, many Weberian
scholars tend to focus on the elements of Calvinism inhering in the
protestant ethic, and neglect its theological antecedents – especially
the part about playing by the rules. Playing by the rules, prior to Saul
becoming Paul, was simply a matter of keeping Yahweh happy. The Pauline
contribution upped the ante a bit by adding eternal damnation into the
stakes, Muhammad thankfully contributed some virgins, and Calvin ensured
that the house won most of the bets.
The point here is not that
Weber’s theory of the protestant ethic employed Calvinism as an explanative
tool to justify the success of Western capitalism, but rather that it
provides a path by which we see how Western moral theology became in
fact a highly secularized moral ideology. Playing by a commonly
agreed-upon set of rules would get you into heaven, make you rich, and
possibly even elected to public office.
In America the ideological
secularization and resulting influence of the protestant ethic grew
incrementally from the birth of the republic, and culminated in the
nostalgically labeled Eisenhower years of the mid-20th century.
More generally, many would argue that, in the decades that followed, the
ideological core values of the Western democracies were eaten away by
burgeoning populations consuming an inversely decreasing set of finite
resources. As a result, in the early 21st century it has become
inordinately difficult to play by the rules we once knew so well.
Nietzsche peeked over the wall and saw it first; we are all beyond good
and evil, god is dead, and so is the protestant ethic.
So – along with the absence
of mom, apple pie and the protestant ethic -- is this nihilistic view of the
world the reason underlying the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority’s
draconian budgetary strategy?
No, the situation is even
uglier. For by proposing to fund a budget deficit from parking citations,
the MTA has taken poor Rev. Calvin and, as Marx did to Hegel, turned him on
his head. The proposed MTA budget strategy is predicated on deriving
revenue from illegal human activity. It invidiously reminds the citizens of
San Francisco that not only do their votes not count, but that they are
inherently evil and, by whatever god there is, the MTA shall profit from
And so dear friends, what
value now will future historians place upon the ethics, morality and public
policy decisions enacted by the rulers of the City and County of San
Francisco in the United States of America in the early part of the 21st
Some concluding thoughts
about Max Weber: although not clearly documented, it is understood that as a
student at the University of Heidelberg in the early 1880’s he became quite
accomplished at fencing. He was known to carry his foils, sabers and other
fencing equipment in a small cart, which he would push about the campus to
his fencing lessons, matches, etc.
In this light and as a
follow-up to our previous speculation regarding Weber’s hypothetical visit
to San Francisco, it can reasonably be said that if he came to the City
today, he not only would have received a parking citation, but that
additionally the poor young student would probably have needed to tell the
world that he had: “left his cart in San Francisco”!!
is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute and
is the Principal of Enfra-Tech - an IT consulting firm based in San
Francisco, California. Enfra-Tech specializes in regulatory
matters and risk
management, computer modeling and simulation, and environmental
technology integration. Sheldon has had more than a decade of service
with the United Nations – with postings in Myanmar (Burma), in
Ghana, the Bahamas, Mauritania and Western Samoa. While with the
United Nations in Ghana, Sheldon developed a hydrological database
and complementary reservoir modeling system supporting the
management of Volta Lake, West Africa's largest hydro-electric
facility. Today Enfra-Tech focuses computer technology on
environmental issues and concerns. More recently, Sheldon has
worked with California Trout, Inc. on a multi-year project that has
modeled the optimization of Lake Pillsbury flow releases as a
pre-requisite to the maintenance of natural flow conditions on Eel
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