Vernon's Mickey

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The Economist has a sweet little story on the unlikely South Los Angeles County city of Vernon, population 90, where 45,000 people work every weekday in various heavy-industry and warehousing jobs. Between reveries, and a declaration that it's a "shame" there aren't more Vernons in or near the world's great cities, the venerable British "newspaper" drops this little to-be-sure:

It does not sound like a recipe for a functioning democracy, because it isn't. The mayor has held power for 34 years. Contested elections are almost unknown. The last was in 2006, when three outsiders moved into a house just before the deadline and petitioned to stand for city offices. Their electricity was abruptly cut off and their home declared unfit for habitation. The outsiders got ten votes out of 68 cast. That was a surprise: they had expected just eight.

Uh, yeah. That sham 2006 election was the first in a quarter century; the interlopers were trailed through Southern California by armed private dicks. The city owns its own electricity plant, and chooses its own residents (who it rewards with extravagantly subsidized housing). The mayor is the grandson of the town founder; the same one family has run the burgh since its inception. For more than a decade, its city administrator was the highest paid municipal employee in the United States, racking up more than $600,000 a year, and taking a city-paid limousine (and/or Escalade) to golf courses on workdays. There are any number of ongoing criminal investigations into the Vernon clan on all levels of law enforcement.

It's a fascinating place, with super-low taxes, a continuous foul stench, and one of the world's best street-level murals … but I'm not sure that that's the industrial model you're looking for.

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  1. This was covered by the LAT last year or in 2006, right? I think reason linked to that article too.

  2. There was a similar town in Ohio called New Rome. It was essentially an extremely profitable speed trap on the west side of Columbus. Eventually, the state passed a law outlining conditions under which the state can revoke a town’s standing as a government entity, which the state immediately did to New Rome.

  3. I would put any of these murals up against any of Vernon’s.
    No contest.

  4. More of a principality, i would say

  5. the same one family has run the burgh since its inception.

    As a Pittsburgh native and grammar nazi, I must point out that the word “burgh” should only have an “h” when referring to Pittsburgh.

    Otherwise, it’s simply burg.

  6. P.S. or if it’s a Scottish town.

  7. one of the world’s best street-level murals

    What does that buxom hayseed have on the end of her leash?

  8. What does that buxom hayseed have on the end of her leash?

    Civil liberty?

  9. I love that mural. As a kid, we used to drive by the Farmer John plant every weekend to go see my Grandmother. That, and the L.A. River kitties were the highlight of the trip.

  10. Aren’t there a couple of these near every major city? I can think of Rosemont and Bedford Park in the Chicago area.

  11. It’s essentially a private fiefdom.

    But this private fiefdom competes for businesses to relocate there by offering competitive rates on electricity and security (i.e. low taxes, law enforcement). So it’s an interesting thing for libertarians to consider.

    The fact that it turns out somewhat ugly and corrupt is also an interesting thing for us to consider.

    No, I’m not about to say “Vernon sucks, therefore we libertarians need to repent!” or anything like that, but perhaps there are some lessons (including cautionary lessons) to be drawn from it.

  12. thoreau — Totally agreed.

  13. Is Vernon really all that different from Disney World?

  14. Hmm, I guess that we could think of Vernon as a local monopoly that adopts the trappings of a state but acts more like a company. The key points about this monopoly:

    1) Like any monopoly (state or private) it has some corruption issues.
    2) Because it is small, the effects of that corruption are (fortunately) contained.
    3) Despite all that, it does seem to have efficient operations within its boundaries.
    4) OTOH, it arguably fails to deal with externalities.

    All in all, a model that illustrates pitfalls of monopolies in both the public and private sectors, some advantages and disadvantages of libertarian proposals, and might be worth imitating in selected circumstances but would be a bad way to organize a larger society.

  15. Chicago has a similar community, Rosemont, which sits next to O’Hare Airport. The town’s founder and permanent mayor died recently, and his son took over. It is chockfull of conference hotels and cargo facilities for the airlines, a convention center, and a handy subway station to the city. There are only a few hundred citizens, living in two sections. The nice houses in the Gated Community are owned by city officials and cops, while a series of nasty apartment blocks are filled by the largely Hispanic workers at the hotels. Except for the hotels, there are no shops, cinemas, schools or restaurants, save a McDonalds just off the airport connector road. The only free public attraction is a museum of Hummel figurines collected by Donald Stephans, the late mayor, a noted collector.

    Stephans was indicted several times for various briberies, but never convicted. His last great crusade was to get a casino, but it never worked. Rosemont is the dream that Mayor Daley aspires to, but will never reach.

  16. Just correcting some misinformation (the place is still Vernon-like):

    It is chockfull of conference hotels and cargo facilities for the airlines

    All those cargo facilities are on land within the city limits of Chicago, not Rosemont.

    Except for the hotels, there are no shops

    There’s a large strip mall with a Target, Office Depot, etc. on what used to be an industrial lot. The McDonald’s you are talking about (and eveything on the east side of Mannheim) is actually in the city limits of Des Plaines. (Several Des Plaines aldermen are also Rosemont cops.)

    The town is only about 3 square miles, so basically the whole town is a hotel cluster, so there ARE restaurants, cinemas. etc. but they are there to take advantage of the convention business, not to satisfy the desires of the few residents. And really, it’s probably a good thing there’s no Donald C. Stephens elemtary school.

  17. According to this, they had a PCL baseball team for 17 years on the strength of being a “wet” town. Prohibition doomed the Vernon Tigers, who were in competition with the LA Angels.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernon_Tigers

    In other news, how difficult would it be to set up your own personal fiefdom? If one were so inclined?

  18. In other news, how difficult would it be to set up your own personal fiefdom? If one were so inclined?

    I wonder if Erik Prince will try it.

  19. I’m a little bit shocked by this post. I would have expected Reason to reflexively promote (OK, “pimp”) fine cities like Vernon as a libertarian utopia. Never fear, there are many fine nearby localities Reason can “promote” instead. Some of those are quite “libertarian”.

  20. Rosemont does have the Allstate Arena (fka the Rosemont Horizon), the Rosemont Theater, and the rose water tower, so it’s got some culture, ya know.

  21. How the hell does that goofy ass shit happen with the links? I know that I pasted in what I meant to paste in. Goddamit.

    Try this again. Jeebus Zod fookin’ Kee-reich on a triscuit!

  22. Click ‘n’ Learn: I’m a little bit shocked by this post. I would have expected Reason to reflexively promote (OK, “pimp”) fine cities like Vernon as a libertarian utopia. Never fear, there are many fine nearby localities Reason can “promote” instead. Some of those are quite “libertarian”.

    Why is it that so many people confuse libertarianism with fascism? They’re polar opposites. A town that doesn’t hold legitimate elections, subsidizes housing for the party members, and cuts off (again, subsidized) electricity to dissidents is not libertarian. Then we also have the problem of the city of Vernon being completely in bed with business. Libertarianism is permissive of commerce, but also opposed to government coddling of corporations.

    The concept of Fascism is the concept of the Corporate State; that all efforts, including governmental, should be directed toward the promotion of the Corporations and Labor. It’s about being part of the Hive Mind. Libertarianism is about the individual. You restrict the government’s powers, not allowing it to prop up poorly run companies and unions. The result is a flourishing of small business and, often, the irrelevance of big labor.

  23. me: In other news, how difficult would it be to set up your own personal fiefdom? If one were so inclined?

    thoreau: I wonder if Erik Prince will try it.

    I had to google Erik Prince. Here’s the money shot. “I saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with — homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kinds of bills.”

    Ah, yes. The gays. We must worry about them. I suppose when he carves out his own city-state (Princeton, Iraq?), it will be homosexual free. Just like its neighbor, Iran.

  24. I worked in Vernon for a year once. It was the most oppressive, soul-withering place imaginable. It was the ugliest place I have ever seen—it makes the industrial parks of New Jersey look like Yosemite—smells like pig shit and is polluted beyond belief. The roads are pocked and pitted with axle-breaking potholes from all the freight going in and out. A train-track ran two feet from our building (no exaggeration) causing the building to shake like an earthquake hit it when the freight trains passed by. The government is the most corrupt in America, paying its staff-for-life hundred of thousands of dollars for doing nothing, and when outsiders moved in to run for office, not only were they hounded out of town by the local police and building inspectors, but the town secretary refused to count the ballots until ordered to by the state. If you look at the smog choked industrial towns of China with their poisoned water and corrupt officials exploiting sweatshop workers and ruining the environment, you have Vernon writ large. 10 years later I still shudder thinking about it. If this is your libertarian paradise, you can have it.

  25. Libertarianism is permissive of commerce, but also opposed to government coddling of corporations.

    People often ask me for my secrets. Well, here’s one: that’s why I put “libertarian” in quotes hereabouts. Some people might have wondered about that, but it’s because this site seems to concentrate on a) nifty BoingBoing-style stuff, b) in effect helping corporations profit from things like GM foods, c) in effect helping corporations profit from things like invasive species, and, of course, d) in effect helping corporations profit from illegal labor.

  26. Click ‘n’ Learn: People often ask me for my secrets. Well, here’s one: that’s why I put “libertarian” in quotes hereabouts. Some people might have wondered about that, but it’s because this site seems to concentrate on a) nifty BoingBoing-style stuff, b) in effect helping corporations profit from things like GM foods, c) in effect helping corporations profit from things like invasive species, and, of course, d) in effect helping corporations profit from illegal labor.

    a) Nothing wrong with niftiness.

    b) Nothing wrong with corporations profiting from GM foods. As long as the government is not actively subsidizing or promoting it, it’s perfectly fine and libertarian.

    c) Invasive species? Like Snakehead fish? I think you need to clarify that one.

    d) In light of the definition I provided above, protecting American workers from the big bad influx of competitors would be the fascist position. Allowing commerce across borders is libertarian. It benefits both large and small businesses, and is permissive rather than command-and-control.

  27. People often ask me for my secrets.

    WHAAAAAAAT?!

    Who?!

    Why?!

  28. I think I figured out what invasive species Click ‘n’ Learn was talking about. He meant invasive specie, i.e. foreign currency. As the dollar declines in value, we will increasingly be at the whim of the European Central Bank (ECB), and the Chinese People’s Revolution’s Cultural Dragon Bank Central (CPRCDBC). The foreign specie will invade, and subject us to socialist rule. Thank you, alert citizen.

  29. Nothing wrong with corporations profiting from GM foods. As long as the government is not actively subsidizing or promoting it, it’s perfectly fine and libertarian.

    Well, not really. See, there might turn out to be side effects decades from now. Yet, the “libertarians” here refuse to take that into account. If they were real libertarians, they’d require the companies involved to post a bond. Otherwise, they could just go BK and leave The Government to foot the bill for remediation.

    Invasive species? Like Snakehead fish? I think you need to clarify that one.

    I think Reason needs to clarify their obsession with supporting messing with nature, specifically relating to their obsession with snakehead fish. Does some corporation stand to profit from that? Why do they keep pushing ISes?

    In light of the definition I provided above, protecting American workers from the big bad influx of competitors would be the fascist position. Allowing commerce across borders is libertarian. It benefits both large and small businesses, and is permissive rather than command-and-control.

    Once again, you can’t think things through. The reason there’s so much illegal labor is because corporations in effect pay off politicians. So, you’ve got MassiveCorruption, a “libertarian” but not a libertarian concept. And, no companies are willing to pay the full cost for their labor, prefering instead to push the costs off on The Government. And, not all of those costs are financial, and include things like giving foreign governments more PoliticalPower inside the U.S.

  30. I forgot one:

    e) in effect helping corporations profit from tobacco products.

  31. LonelyWhacker = Dave W + ScaredOfImmigrants

  32. See, there might turn out to be side effects decades from now. Yet, the “libertarians” here refuse to take that into account. If they were real libertarians, they’d require the companies involved to post a bond. Otherwise, they could just go BK and leave The Government to foot the bill for remediation.

    The anti-GM hysteria is unfounded. GM foods have been thoroughly tested, and have saved 2 billion lives to date. Slowing progress down through red tape is symptomatic of an un-libertarian desire to impose personal preferences (i.e. “organic” food) on others.

    I think Reason needs to clarify their obsession with supporting messing with nature, specifically relating to their obsession with snakehead fish. Does some corporation stand to profit from that? Why do they keep pushing ISes?

    I think you’re the one with the obsession. They don’t bring it up very often, but it apparently upsets you a great deal.

    Once again, you can’t think things through. The reason there’s so much illegal labor is because corporations in effect pay off politicians. So, you’ve got MassiveCorruption, a “libertarian” but not a libertarian concept. And, no companies are willing to pay the full cost for their labor, prefering instead to push the costs off on The Government. And, not all of those costs are financial, and include things like giving foreign governments more PoliticalPower inside the U.S.

    You are saying, essentially, that corporations are too powerful, and need to be reined in by the other too legs of the fascist stool — labor and government. They aren’t willing to be subsumed into the corporate state, so they need to be brought down a peg for the time being.

    As far as foreign “PoliticalPower” goes, that’s the breaks. We are moving toward a more globalized society. Our actions affect other countries. Their actions affect us. If we attempt to protect ourselves from being soiled by the unwashed masses outside our borders, we will eventually become like the Japanese circa 1850. We will atrophy and fall behind. One day, a Commodore Perry will show up and demonstrate how backward we are. But we shouldn’t have to do that. By remaining open and interdependent, we will reap the benefits of a more prosperous future.

    Again, the choice is between fascism and libertarianism. Fascism is closed and tribalistic. Libertarianism is open and globalistic. Fascism appears to offer freedom, but it’s always an illusion. Libertarianism, to some, is frightening, because it appears to chain us to the whims of others. That, too, is an illusion.

  33. Click ‘n’ Learn: I forgot one:

    e) in effect helping corporations profit from tobacco products.

    Oh, stop it. I don’t smoke, but people should be able to light up if they damn well feel like it. There is nothing unlibertarian about that. Your fear of overly powerful corporations brainwashing the masses into smoking is pathetic.

  34. FACT CHECK: there are not “any number of ongoing criminal investigations into the Vernon clan on all levels of law enforcement.” The former city manger, who left over two years ago, is being investigated for misuse of public funds, and there is some question about whether the octogenarian mayor actually lives in Vernon.

    “Democracy” doesn’t work in many ways or many situations: corporate socialism reduces costs in places like Vernon, Rosemont, the little city that is Newark Airport, etc.

    I work in Vernon — and regardless of how some (like Utek1) might recall it, it’s different, and better now. Yep, it’s smelly and noisy – you could think of it as LA’s garbage disposal – but where do people think recycling goes? What happens to used car batteries? What neighborhoods best serves 24 hour produce trucking?

    The city gov’t has cleaned up its act, and it has the responsiveness of a small town. It’s easy to hate on our little town, because parts of its history resonate with a familiar corruption narrative- but things have changed. Vernon’s unique exclusively-industrial character benefits all southern californians, not just the 45,000 people who work here every day.

  35. While we wait for Click ‘n’ Learn to get his head together, allow me to share some more thoughts on fascism in the US.

    Ron Paul reminded us that, “When fascism comes it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” People who are espouse fascist ideals in America are social pariahs. They soon realize that their only hope for survival is to divorce themselves from a society that no longer accepts them as normal and relevant. This necessarily means limited government, but it is not connected to the respect for the dignity of the individual that true libertarianism presupposes. Somewhat ironically, they may come to think of themselves as libertarians when they are nothing of the sort.

    Furthermore, the Corporate State does not mean that the corporations run everything. Rather it means the incorporation of the entire state into an almost organic whole. Business, labor and government all march in lockstep to achieve the greater good as conceived by societal architects.

    Think of the symbol of the fasces. It is an axe surrounded by rods and bound together. It perfectly symbolizes the fascist concept of government, where we are held together to achieve a common purpose.

    Of course, the fasces doesn’t seem like a very useful tool. Artificially holding those rods around the handle makes the fasces unwieldy. For this reason, the fasces is used in American iconography to represent something very different. Whereas fascism attempts to bind a nation or people together artificially, our national creed of E Pluribus Unum implies peaceful cooperation. We the people act together to exercise authority, rather than authority being exercised to make us act together.

    This brings us to Click ‘n’ Learn. He cannot impose the overbearing government of his choice on the rest of us, so he withdraws and pretends to be a libertarian, as described above. But, the arrival of illegal immigrants (and apparently snakehead fish) makes it impossible for him to wall himself off in the complete manner he desires. This angers and confuses him. He demands that the government step in to protect his delicate sensibilities, but to no avail. He is left to conclude that the government, because it is not actively working to build the society he dreams of, is in the pocket of the corporations. He naively equates this with a kleptocratic corporate state. The process is complete. Fascism has become libertarianism and libertarianism has become fascism in his mind.

  36. JFK,
    That has to be one of the most insightful observations I’ve read in a long time.

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