Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's what John E.E. Dalberg Acton, a British writer and historian, said in 1887.
And it's what Dan La Botz, local writer and UC history professor, seems to be saying about Cincinnati in 2008.
Margo Pierce's cover story "Ruling Class" examines the larger issues raised by La Botz's provocative paper Who Rules Cincinnati? A Study of Cincinnati's Economic Power Structure and Its Impact on Communities and People. He published the paper online in January; download your own copy at www.cincinnatistudies.org.
La Botz profiles what he calls the seven most influential corporations headquartered in the city of Cincinnati, explaining their connections to local nonprofit and university boards, their input into development decisions and their financial contributions to political campaigns. He concludes that such corporate control leads to "grotesque contrasts between rich and poor like those we associate with Third World countries" that have "a particularly damaging impact on the African American population" in Cincinnati.
Cities enjoy hosting major corporations and often tout how many Fortune 500 companies they have.
Beyond the intangible prestige a city thinks it has via its prominent corporate citizens, real benefits accrue from having a Procter & Gamble or a Macy's/Federated headquartered in your home town -- from an improved tax base thanks to fairly high-paid jobs to an influx of creative minds from around the country and the world. In return, cities often give tax breaks, preferred real estate and other perks to these companies as incentives to stay put and grow.
A friend once clued me into the basic three-legged stool that is American society: business, government and nonprofits (education, arts, social services, etc.). The first two keep a check on each other, and both help support the third. If all three are balanced and working together, you have a prosperous community.
If any one area gets out of balance, you start to see a city wobble. If the government does all the work, budget deficits build, services suffer, tax revenues fall and a death spiral kicks in. Cincinnati has largely avoided this fate so far.
If the corporate sphere gets too powerful, important decisions are taken out of the hands of the people and their elected officials. This is how La Botz views Cincinnati today.
And if the nonprofit world suffers from lack of support, you have a city where the arts shut down, major social services pull back and school systems crumble -- which come back to haunt both the business and government areas because highly-paid employees suddenly don't enjoy living in a struggling community.
Two major cultural changes have begun tilting these interdependent relationships. The first is the emergence of political action committees that funnel huge amounts of corporate money into elections. The government that must check the business community in our three-legged model is now beholden to businesses for its political survival.
The second change is how arts funding and targeted development work, which used to be backed by a city's wealthy families and philanthropists, is now largely funded by local corporations looking for a return on what they consider a marketing investment. Meanwhile, local governments generally have had a hard time maintaining their support of nonprofits.
It's an important conversation that La Botz has sparked. I only wish more Cincinnatians were interested in joining in.
CONTACT JOHN FOX: firstname.lastname@example.org