It’s Gasparilla weekend in Tampa, our annual Mardi Gras-esque tribute to self-indulgence and debauchery.
A couple hundred thousand people will line the streets to watch the various “crews” parade with their floats and costumes, shouting and . . . well, doing other things . . . to get beads thrown by the “pirates” (and the ladies of some of the integrated crews).
I acknowledge that this is Tampa’s thing, and has been for a long time. I understand its place in our community and our culture.
I just don’t like it.
One of the many reasons is the temptation that it lays before young men and women. Though there are laws about public drunkenness and lewd behavior, and though Tampa’s Finest will be out in force to enforce those laws, the event itself celebrates putting our moral compass in the closet for an afternoon of rowdy celebration. Those with some experience and wisdom will manage it all with reasonable finesse. But many a younger adult (including many who are underage) will follow the community’s embrace of excess by their own excesses, with effects that can linger in their souls (and all too often on the Internet) for years to come.
Such mistakes are so preventable . . . but so easy to understand. The short-term temptations, reinforced by various “social lubricants,” overwhelm long-term vision and mature judgment.
This tendency to give greater weight to immediate rewards over long-term returns is not limited to my students, however. Nor is it limited to moments intended to celebrate excess. Thoughtful, intelligent people can and often do tip the scales unwisely in favor to the moment.
It happens in municipal government as it happens everywhere else. Indeed, a recent story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune brought the very adult struggle over such temptations to light in a fascinating historical light.
According to the story, in February 1959, Sarasota’s then-city manager, Ken Thompson, took a small but significant step for civil rights and, in so doing, may also have helped Sarasota avoid a mistake many municipalities would make in the last years of de jure segregation and Jim Crow.
The step was to alert the manager of the city’s Bobby Jones Golf Club that a foursome of African-American golfers, headed to the course, had the right to play. And so . . . they played.
The key point was that there was a right involved that the city could not deny. Accepting (perhaps even embracing) that reality meant one less battle for Sarasota in the losing war too many Southern communities would fight against desegregation.
One of the ways some Southern cities fought against desegregation was to transfer into private hands the assets of the community. Jeff Lahurd, writing about Ken Thompson’s service to the city, noted that many Southern cities sold off their municipal golf courses in an effort to preserve them for whites alone.
In so doing, they secured what to them was a short-term payoff. But they also lost valuable public assets . . . forever.
We’ve gotten smarter about this, about how to do something “now” without completely mortgaging our futures. But one must pay attention to the strength of the key motivations of decision makers in every case. There nearly always will be a strong temptation to bond that revenue stream, or to sell or lease that asset, in order to provide ourselves, now, with the capacity to do other good things, or to avoid current costs or difficulties.
On this point, there is little if anything that can be done institutionally to balance the weight of present benefits and future costs. Nor is there much hope that our constituents will provide that necessary check. Voters don’t often vote against elected officials because of a decision they made that will hurt the community 10 years hence, especially if there appear to be immediate benefits of so doing.
So it rests with those of us in public office now to do what Ken Thompson did then, what our founders saw as the ultimate purpose of the public sector: