I want to share an all-time favorite joke of mine, and then, Lord help me, talk about the joke just a bit. I am obliged to say that I appropriated it from the late, great Andy Griffith years ago, and have added my own idiosyncratic embellishments. Whether you find it as humorous as I — a fair number do; a fair number more do not — is secondary to the larger point I hope to make.
That probably is too much set-up. But my deadline is approaching, my thoughts are whistling down the track, and it’s too late to turn back now.
One fine sunny day, a man on a long, leisurely drive along country back roads begins to feel hungry. He spies a little store at a crossroads just ahead, and whips into the packed-dirt parking area. Inside, he helps himself to a homemade fried apple pie and pulls a cold drink from an iced cooler. As the proprietor rings up the purchase, the man glances around the building. For the first time, he notices that the entire back wall is stacked six feet high and more with five-pound bags of salt.
“You must sell a lot of salt,” he says to the proprietor.
“No, not too much,” the other man responds.
“Really? I ask because I noticed all that salt you have stacked up back there.”
“Oh, that,” the proprietor says. “Well, I don’t sell much salt. But the fellow who sells me salt? Now, he sells salt.”
When I tell this joke, I identify myself, and the listener, implicitly with the man whose very pleasant drive is enlivened by his encounter with this dash of rustic color, in the person of the proprietor. Confronted with the available evidence — i.e., the better part of a half a ton of salt lining the back wall of his little business, and his own admission of fault for this egregious bottleneck in inventory — we feel safe in concluding that the storeowner is a bit of a rube.
The unseen hand in the drawing of this conclusion is that of the salt salesman. To be fair, we don’t know a lot about him. He might be the greatest salt salesman in the history of salt salesmen. He also might be a terrible salt salesman — but even in that case, the one thing we do know is that he has a gift for selling salt to this particular storeowner. That, and that he is willing to sell as much salt as possible to this man so clearly in his thrall, whether or not the man needs it.
Anyway, I think it’s a wonderful joke. Even so, I had not told it nor thought of it for some time until a few days ago. It came to me as I was watching the video replay of last week’s Birmingham City Council meeting, specifically the brief discussion prior to the council’s unanimous approval (6-0, with three members absent from the voting) of two requests by Mayor William Bell’s office, relative to his efforts to lure the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to nominate their 2016 Presidential candidate right here in Birmingham.
First, the council approved the mayor’s expenditure of $250,000 on “DNC recruitment.” No timetable for the expenditure was discussed, at least in the public forum of the council meeting, though with the way the Bell Administration blows through taxpayer dollars, we can assume that it will go as quickly and smoothly as, say, a well-oiled heist. Second, the council bound the city to “appropriate $5 million for use by the 2016 Birmingham Host Committee to defray the operating costs of hosting” the Democratic convention, should Birmingham be selected as the site.
The only attempted discussion of the $5 million came from District 6 Councilor Shelia Tyson. Why, Tyson asked Mayor Bell, was it necessary for the city to commit to the $5 million now, rather than once the convention has been awarded? (This was a fine question, as far as it goes, which is not far enough, and should have included such additional questions as where this impressive amount of money suddenly turned up in a city that is running a $13 million deficit, and what will happen to it if the DNC does not select Birmingham. Things like that.)
As it turned out, Bell really didn’t have to answer. Instead, District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott jumped in to run interference for him.
“We’ve gotta show ‘em that we’re gonna do it,” Abbott told Tyson. “They need to see the money. ‘Show me the money.’ They just want to know we’ve got it and we’re committed.”
For his part, Bell let Abbott finish, and then added, “We just want to let them know that we’re serious about it. But it will not be touched,” he said, unless and until the DNC announces its selection of Birmingham.
But it’s Abbott I want to consider for a moment. At least until her recent reliability as a vote for pretty much whatever the mayor wants — certainly, that is her prerogative — Abbott’s reputation for most of her three-plus terms on the city council has been that of a as a watchdog of public dollars.
Just hearing Abbott say, “They need to see the money,” caused my jaw to drop. But hearing, in the next breath, the assurance that “we’ve got it,” makes me wonder why she has not demanded before now that we find that $5 million and use it to address any one, or some several of, the many dire needs of our city and its citizens — needs on which the Democratic National Convention will exert not one iota of meaningful impact.
Hearing these things brought to mind my joke. Only in this telling, I am not the worldly-wise man of leisure, but the rube — and so are you, and so is all of Birmingham. And, even more, so are our presumptive leaders, who are buying salt as fast as the salesmen can sell it — indeed, the only reason we are rubes is that we’re standing around watching them do it with our money.
What if we started “finding” money to invest in the citizens of Birmingham? What if our model for economic development was one that actually works for the working people of our community? What if our goal was to become known, not as a cool city or a hip city or a hot city or even a green city, but as a Smart City?
What if we stop being the rube and keep our money and resources at home, where they not only belong, but are so sorely needed?
I’d sure like to find out. But if we keep throwing away money that we don’t have and wasting money that we do, that’s never going to happen.