Mick Ireland

It’s more than a little amusing and discomforting to hear the occasional plea in the public square for some unnamed billionaire or multi-billionaire to provide the community with yet another amenity that we could easily pay for on our own.

The latest but not the only such plea in recent years is made on behalf of saving the Isis movie theater from the fate of so many other venues across the country: conversion of the space into a “higher and better use.” Like we need more high-end retail and luxury third homes.

To me, the idea that the world’s 2,200-plus billionaires have so much money that they could easily end child poverty and end homelessness if they wanted to do so is beside the point. If a community wants to solve a problem, let it use its votes and its taxing powers to do so.

Billionaires could collectively end world hunger, but they don’t. And why should they? Some, of course, are extremely philanthropic. Andrew Carnegie assembled the world’s largest fortune by creating a vertical monopoly that mined iron ore in the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, transported it to Pittsburgh on his rail lines, processed it with his own coal at his plants, sent Pinkerton goons to shoot striking workers and built what became U.S. Steel.

Carnegie told his money manager that he wanted a plan to give away the fortune and spent the last 18 years of his life funding 2,500 libraries, concert venues, science foundations and church organs that still bear his name. By the time he was done, he had given away 90% of his $600 billion fortune and lived the fulfillment of his declaration that the wealthy have a moral obligation to help the have-nots.

With the exception of Bill Gates and a few others, most billionaires don’t share Carnegie’s sense of noblesse oblige. We live in the age of greed as a good and “never enough” as a mantra. Over the course of many, many land-use hearings over 19 years, We have heard from wealthy people about their need for just one more lucrative subdivision when, in reality, the applicants have no more “need” for more money than the rest of us “need” a third piece of pie and ice cream. Surely, my readers, you know of people who couldn’t spend what they presently have in their remaining life span — even if they could figure out how much they had to spend and how to spend it.

Reality check from the mouth of Boss Springsteen: “Poor man wanna be rich. Rich man wanna be King. And a King ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.” Badlands, 1978. Buying 500-foot yachts with baby yachts in attendance to facilitate helicopter landings keeps one busy — if not happy — and settling with ex-spouses is quite time consuming. Handouts to the nation’s wealthiest community isn’t high on the to-do list.

But the case against the rescue fantasy theory of funding public goods rests more on the fundamental notion of Aspen’s identity as a free and independent community. This is, after all, a town that declined Walter Paepcke’s offer to pay for the paint of any homeowner willing to spruce up his (or her) house for the Goethe Bicentennial. Condescension was not well received and paternalism even less so.

I loathe many libertarian postulates but give them this much: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. This little town has seen “free” offers to modernize the school system electronics only to end up with the resignation of a school superintendent who declined to translate the gift as an entitlement to direct school curricula. And some of us remember the offer to build an ice rink in Wagner Park — branded with the “K” for a Koch brother.

Aspen doesn’t need to stand with a cardboard sign in front of the Isis building, hoping for charity. When we wanted housing, we taxed ourselves and built it. When we wanted public transportation, we asked the voters. When we wanted a great school system, we paid for it. We aren’t a rust belt city unable to replace lead pipes or a red state helpless and unable to protect citizens from freezing to death and being gouged by utility companies for the privilege. We are, in fact, one of the wealthiest, most prosperous and best educated towns in the country and, most likely, in the world. And we rightly pride ourselves on managing our growth, protecting our environment and trying to create a real community, at least as real as is possible.

If we want to preserve the Isis as a movie and performance venue, we can pass a tiny mill levy of a few dollars per $1,000,000 and buy out the lease. We own Smuggler Mountain, Sky Mountain Park, have the best rural transit system in the country, thousands of affordable housing units and world-class schools. We aren’t a damsel in distress lying on a railroad track in need of rescue. We’re not a dependent dude unable to help himself, a broken community abandoned by the economy. We are Aspen.

And none of what we like — what sets us apart — was bequeathed to us as supplicants at the feet of the masters of the universe and their insatiable need for more power and influence.

It is often said, “You must participate in your own rescue.” If we want to preserve the Isis, let’s embark on the decision-making process we call elections and, if that’s what we decide, let’s put away the cardboard and the magic markers and go from there.

Mick Ireland remembers the Isis being closed to the public and surrounded by limos to ensure the safety of a Middle East potentate who wanted to watch a movie. Mick@sopris.net.