An angry reader called me years ago to complain about one of my columns, and before she hung up she informed me that "all you radical hippies want is free drugs, free love, and free lunch."
I couldn't possibly have put it better. Especially the free lunch.
But it's funny: As a society, Americans these days are almost afraid of things that are free. If it doesn't cost money, it must be a scam. Or crappy. Or illegal. Nobody just gives anything away any more.
In fact, Douglas Rushkoff has written an entire book about the problem, called Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How We Can Take it Back (2009, Random House). In an interview with Cecile Lepage in this special issue (which provides dozens of great tips on things you can do and get for free), Rushkoff describes the problem:
"People prefer hiring a person to babysit for their child rather than accepting a favor from the old lady down the street because if you accept, what social obligation have you incurred? What if she wants to join you at your next barbecue? What if she now wants to be your friend? So now we all have to work more to get money to buy things that we used to just exchange freely with each other."
Of course, if we all gave more away free, we wouldn't need anywhere near as much money, which would change the whole way our consumer-driven society functions. People could work less and have more free time (say, to volunteer, or help babysit the neighbor's kid). The financial institutions that so dominate our society (and that so seriously fucked up the world economy) would have less of a role in how people live their lives.
I know, I know: Ain't no free lunch. Not in America, not in 2009. But it's a thought.
So everyone in town was talking last week about the City College indictments. As one local wag put it to me, only partly in jest: "These folks must be guilty as sin if Kamala Harris actually indicted them." We don't know much about their guilt or innocence before trial, but we do know that (a) our district attorney is mighty careful about filing charges in political corruption cases, so this isn't just a set of allegations that will quickly disappear, and (b) there has been an awful lot of corruption in the local community college for a long time, and this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
I wouldn't be surprised, when all is said and done, if the reign of former chancellor Phil Day starts to look like that of former school superintendent Bill Rojas a cesspool of sleaze that could take years to clean up.
And yet, college trustee Lawrence Wong was quoted in the Chronicle praising Day and calling him "probably the best chancellor we've had." Amazing, but not surprising. In fact, Wong and two of his colleagues Trustee Natalie Berg and former trustee Rodel Rodis backed up Day over and over again when he played funny with money, pissed off community groups, and acted disdainful of any criticism.
Rodis lost his re-election bid last fall, although Berg somehow survived. Wong is up in 2010. The reformers are slowly gaining control of the board, and the indictments show just how badly that was needed. *