Coos Bay keeps looking for “Great Men”

Wim de Vriend_thb

by Wim de Vriend

“All we need is the right man,” sighed my bar customer, in a semi-confident wrap-up of his side of the conversation.  “The right man, who has the connections and who knows how to bring in new businesses!”  And with that he got up to leave, an unspoken signal that “The Right Man” was his unappealable final solution to our permanent economic depression.  It wasn’t until he walked out when he produced a semblance of reflection: “I don’t know why they haven’t found him yet.  He has to be out there.”  And then he was gone.

During our chat I had objected that Coos Bay had been down that road before, hiring one “Right Man” after another “Right Man”.  And none of those “Right Men”, although always greeted with enormous expectations, had managed to bring in the hoped-for new businesses.  But his eyes had glazed over, in a sort of trance that seemed to include his ears.  And after all, what do I know?  I’ve only written a book on the subject.  And that book, “The JOB Messiahs,” covering forty years of local economic history, was over twenty years in the making.  Obviously I must have been seized by an irresponsible rush to publication.

My customer is not a stupid man, but not many years have passed since he came here after a successful business career in California, a state whose economy seems to convince its businessmen that they are the smartest in the world.  During my years in Coos Bay I’ve met several of those.  Some had been developers.  They had done well in California, so they decided to come up to Coos Bay to show the natives how it was done.  What they forgot was not only that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that a falling tide will do the opposite.  Building a subdivision or upgrading office buildings has an excellent chance of working out, if done in an environment of rising property values – like California until recently.  But they thought they’d succeeded because they’d been so smart.  And when such people come here and things don’t work out so well, what do they fall back on?  The discredited notion that we should hire an economic savior to set things right.  We need to man up, they say.  We need to find The Right Man.  In other words, the JOB Messiah.

Those who don’t know history

All through that bar conversation I had an odd feeling of re-living history.  I recalled a heated meeting almost four decades ago, when vocal “economic development” activists were pushing the then-stodgy Port of Coos Bay to hire a new kind of Port Manager, one who should be a miracle worker and a fighter.  “We have to get a man who is willing to work and knows all the angles,” they insisted (“The JOB Messiahs”, page 3-9).  Clearly, they were demanding The Right Man as well.

The previous port manager, whose title “harbor master” reflected the fact that he was the very last one in charge at the Port who knew something about shipping, was Ernie Payne.  To the displeasure of the “economic development” crowd, Payne had made no bones about his view of Coos Bay’s industrial future, which was unspectacular.  Coos Bay, he pointed out accurately, was simply too isolated to ever attract large-scale industries except for lumber: “I don’t think the miracles are there to produce.  I’ve heard a lot of promotional schemes in 17 years.” (2-6)  But Payne was retiring, and hopefully his opinions with him, so the Port Commission caved to the activists and hired Steve Felkins as its new Port Manager, at twice Payne’s salary.  It soon became clear that Felkins wasn’t much of a business genius but more of a preacher.  To Felkins, “economic development” was a leap of faith, and he hit the revival circuit, hard.  From his Port-provided pulpit, the newly-called revivalist exhorted those of little faith:  “The Port of Coos Bay is at a crossroads.  The community has to make a basic decision – do they want to go backwards, or expand and diversify?”  (p. 3-10)

In reality “expand and diversify” meant closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and throwing lots of public money at risky business ventures, usually proposed by shifty itinerant promoters.  But Felkins managed to shame his congregation into embracing his call to “expand and diversify”.  And that’s how the Port ended up with vacant fish plants in Charleston and an unused T-dock on the North Spit, all of which caused great financial distress.  On the heels of those flops Manager Felkins was advocating that the local airport must be expanded AT ALL COST.  For what purpose?  Well . . . “even if nobody landed at the damn airport, it would demonstrate that we are willing to work together for something.” (2-9)

If some readers consider that a reasonable statement, they must favor the religious-revival-method of economic development.  They must also agree with the editor of The World at that time, Jerry Baron who, during decades of counterproductive “economic development” by Felkins and his successors, never failed to exhort the faithful to double down: “I just wish that people here could rally in support of something . . .  it takes real courage to stand up and be for something . . . people . . . should get together by the hundreds and develop a committee for something.”  (3-1)

Sorry, Jerry; it doesn’t work that way.  Even if the Port Manager and the Chamber of Commerce and the SCDC and FONSI and all the rest of the parasitic “development” agencies think the path to economic progress runs through secret committees and secret “planning” meetings and high-minded political endorsements and grants and earmarks and other gestures that prove “we are willing to work together,” their opinions are not just irrelevant, but they show complete ignorance of how the economy works.  Economic development is a matter of dollars and cents, but not public dollars and cents, which usually make things worse instead of better.  All it takes is for some private entrepreneurs to see a profit-making opportunity in Coos Bay, seize it, and build on it.  That has always been the soundest method of achieving economic development.  And why haven’t more entrepreneurs done so?  Because Coos Bay’s “economic development” crowd has erected too many obstacles, actively discouraging people from settling here; and that’s why entrepreneurs who could have done our area a world of good have gone to other coastal towns instead, to Brookings, Bandon, Florence and others.

Knights in Shining Armor

But if misery loves company, stupidity and ignorance love it even more; they crave the support of other mini-brains, and the more the better.  Back in the ‘eighties the Port’s Larry Ivy, who also served as interim Port Manager, was asked once what would happen if the Port of Coos Bay would cease to exist.  His reply: “Oh gosh! I don’t know what would happen.  But I can tell you what would no longer be available, there would be no agency to supply jobs.” (8-3)

Whatever happened to private employers, or employment agencies, or even the Oregon Department of Employment?  Never mind, because Ivy’s new boss Frank Martin took La-La-Land to the next level.  Frank Martin was the ultimate Right Man, who put stars in his supporters’ eyes.  Back in 1983, Teri Whitty told me in excited confidence that Mr. Martin was arriving soon, to set things right for Coos Bay.  And all during Martin’s disastrous tenure at the Port of Coos Bay, the Whitty’s, the Brunells, and other pillars of this community never wavered in their support of a con man who verbalized his understanding of his own job as follows:

“Public agencies should be “innovators, creators and financiers for the private sector” and should then “move on to something else.”   (8-3)

I don’t know what Martin could have meant by this except that in his world, all promising new products, from the Model-T to Microsoft Windows, were invented by Port Managers and other Right Men.  Those Right Men would then fund people like Henry Ford and Bill Gates, so they could market the Right Men’s brain children, making undeserved gazillions for themselves.  If anybody has a different explanation, I’d love to hear it.

Besides Larry Ivy and the hidebound Coos Bay dynasties, Martin had many more supporters of the same mind-set.  World editor Jerry Baron, besides ignoring all realistic assessments of Coos Bay’s limited industrial potential (3-3), was not only a fervent supporter of every hare-brained scheme the Port undertook, his economic philosophy favored despotism.  While contemplating the wreckage wrought by the various Port Managers in 1999, Baron advocated a “new and creative,” “three-year economic development demonstration project”, which would consist of forcibly “relocating urban industry, business and populations into rural areas [like Coos Bay], thus creating new model cities.”  This has not been tried since the Soviet Union fell apart, and for good reasons.  There was a difference, of course, in that instead of Moscow, Salem would have to pay the costs of this upheaval worthy of a dictator’s imagination. (17-19)

When, after a calamitous but noisy tenure, Frank Martin finally left town in 1988, he got a festive send-off, with Governor Goldschmidt attending and booze and jokes flowing, and all the rest of it.  Clearly, such parties are intended to hide the truth of another Great Man’s failure, for if they did acknowledge it, wouldn’t the attending politicians catch some of the blame?  No – Martin remained a hero to people like Jerry Baron (17-18), despite numerous revelations about his profligacy, his bullying, his lying and other misconduct.

The worship of Great Man has continued.  Recent years have seen even more adulation of the Coos Bay Port Manager as a Knight in Shining Armor.  I am quoting from a piece by Elise Hamner, at the time a World reporter, but later appointed “Manager of Communications and Community Affairs of the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay”.  That means public relations, if you didn’t know.  Smoothing the way to that appointment was her obvious hero worship of Port Manager Jeff Bishop, who has since departed for greener pastures in Oklahoma.  Back in 2005, Bishop claimed to have found the road to Coos Bay’s new Golden Age by promoting an LNG import terminal (since then, like every other grand industrial plan for Coos Bay, made unviable by market forces).  According to awe-struck Elise, attending a Port meeting in 2005:

“Bishop’s presence is hard to miss.  He’s a tall man with a big handshake.

As Thursday night wore on, his smooth forehead was flushed.  Somewhat out of character, he didn’t quote the words of any great thinkers.  . . . . No one said a word. . . . “It’s a large moment,” Port Commissioner Caddy McKeown said letting out a big breath. “I thank you for the effort that’s come forth here.  It’s a long time coming.”

And then there was a long silence. . . .”

Longshoremen who had come to the meeting to complain about a lack of jobs “were shocked and humbled.  And very pleased. ‘Wow,’ one ILWU delegate whispered . . .  after the meeting. . . . (Bishop) walked out into the dark, down the steps of City Hall, seeming confident he has begun to push down the barriers that have long prevented the port from prospering.

“That’s what they hired me to do,” Bishop said.  Then he headed off alone, down toward the port’s offices overlooking Coos Bay.” (19-4)

Great men are almost always bad men

Great Men are not only expensive for those with Great Expectations, but they have pernicious effects on the people’s money, on their liberties, and on openness in government generally.  In a few words: they trample on them.  This is because of the old error that the goal sanctifies the means.  And this is why the history of “economic development” in Coos Bay includes so many, many episodes of the Port (and SCDC and Fonsi and the Chamber and the rest of its supporters) intimidating local critics, conducting business in secret, and committing financial and electoral corruption.  It’s important to realize that the worship of Great Men always results in such problems, prime examples of which are found in chapters 6, 9, 13, and more.

It may be fair, at this point, to recognize that the worship of (and the wish for) Great Men who ride roughshod over conventional rules to achieve Great Things may well be part of human nature.  John Dalberg-Acton, also known as First Lord Acton (1834-1902), was the scholar who formulated the famous quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Not many people seem to know that Lord Acton, a devout Catholic, wrote this in a letter criticizing the assumption of infallibility which the Catholic Church of the time wanted to give the Pope – and did.  Other lines from that letter by Acton are: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more [given] . . . the certainty of corruption by authority.  There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

But even though Acton warned against the worship of Great Men, people in Coos Bay keep looking for them, which places them in the awkward position of advocating fascism.  While most people have heard of Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, and Hitler’s Nazism in Germany, not many seem to know that many other countries were run by mini-Hitlers and mini-Mussolinis in those days.  Between World War I and World War II, dictators were in charge in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Russia, every one of the Baltic republics, and more.  Clearly, the human wish for the guidance of an all-knowing, all-seeing Leader, a.k.a. The Right Man, has been around for a long time.

The Führer Principle

And the German Nazis, methodical as they were, had made dictatorship palatable for ever-more German citizens by a philosophy called Das Führerprinzip – “The Leader Principle”.  According to this ideology, the Führer’s word and the Führer’s wish were above all written law, and all government agencies were obligated to work toward realizing his grand plans, regardless of what the law said.  Below Hitler himself there were lots of smaller Führers too, who had similar unquestioned authority within their jurisdiction.  According to Wikipedia, this societal structure was very much like a military organization.  “The justification for the civil use of the Führerprinzip was that unquestioning obedience to a superior supposedly produced order and prosperity . . .”

In World War II the Germans had invaded Holland for reasons obvious to themselves, but not so much to the Dutch, and for many years after the war, many Dutchmen had a lingering resentment against their eastern neighbors.  What didn’t help much was that in the 1950s, as a result of their near-miraculous post-war economic recovery, the Germans started new invasions of the Low Countries, mostly on weekends and holidays, on inadequate highways choked with miles-long lines of Volkswagens, BMWs and Mercedeses.  The usual objective of those peacetime incursions was some Dutch beach, where the new occupants would dig foxholes to protect themselves, this time from North Sea breezes instead of an allied invasion fleet.  While it’s neither true nor fair to say that those Germans behaved like the conquerors of World War II, it was reported that some, upon returning to their foxhole the next day and finding it occupied by another family, sternly demanded it be surrendered on the grounds of adverse possession.

But one day a group of Germans was strolling along the canals of Amsterdam when they were approached by an enterprising university student.  In the tourist season many Dutch students, all of whom spoke several languages, made money on the side by acting as tour guides.  Now it is a fact that the German word Führer means “leader” but also “guide”.  So this eager-beaver student walks up to the wandering Germans, asking: “Brauchen Sie einen Führer?”  Do you need a guide?

“Nah,” one of the older Germans said.  “A Führer?  We already tried that.  Didn’t work out so gut.”

Wim de Vriend lives in Coos Bay and is the author of a book on the failed economic development efforts in Coos County: The JOB Messiahs