John Sperling passed on. I am mindful of Horace's de mortuis nil nisi bonum, but Sperling was a public figure of consequence, deserving an assessment. In keeping with the life he led, Sperling died in the Bay Area, not the city whose name he took for his empire of for-profit education.
The New York Times wrote, "A survivor of childhood illness, learning disability, poverty and physical abuse, he earned a doctorate from the University of Cambridge; a liberal former union organizer, he spent years battling government regulation; a longtime professor who did not enter business until his 50s, he became a spectacularly successful capitalist."
The University of Phoenix made him fabulously wealthy. His net worth in 2002 was $1.1 billion and he spent 20 years on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. With the troubles of parent company Apollo and its stock drop, he was below a billion in 2013.
He reveled in being quirky, combative and rebellious, especially against the education establishment and the government. And yet the GI Bill — authored by Arizona Sen. Ernest McFarland — allowed Sperling to get his bachelor's degree from Reed College in Portland, Ore. Federal student loans turned what would have once been considered a "business college" into a mighty profit engine.
Among the individuals who wrecked the commons, Sperling is right up there. Privatizing profits, socializing losses, the cost and quality of an education at the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools deeply questionable.
They are a huge source of student debt. Dropout rates are high. Apollo faced allegations that it paid recruiters based on the number of students they signed up, ultimately settling a whistle-blower suit for $80.5 million. As the Arizona Republic wrote, "A two-year Senate investigation pointed out in 2012 that an online degree from the University of Phoenix cost six times more than a comparable degree from the Maricopa Community College system and that Sperling was paid $8.6 million in 2009, 13 times more than the president of the University of Arizona."
As Sperling's empire rose, America's real public universities were being starved of revenues, for taxes must always be cut. Business can't provide every good in a civilization, and without regulation it can dismantle it, one hustle at a time. The very idea of a real university education has been degraded to minting cubicle proles rather than well-rounded citizens who can think critically. How convenient.
Sperling did nothing for Phoenix, aside from attaching its name to his education hustle. If he contributed in any meaningful way to local arts, culture, civic betterment or rolling back the Kookocracy, I have yet to hear of it. Even Apollo's massive new headquarters was built in a seedy warehouse district off the Maricopa Freeway. Imagine if it had been built downtown.
Like Charlie Keating before him, Sperling was a taker, there to use up the city and discard it. Keating at least pretended to be a civic leader.
This really matters because great cities require stewards who can knock heads and write checks. It is on display all over Seattle, with Bill Gates and Paul Allen merely the biggest names that have invested in the city and the commons. Old Phoenix enjoyed this and it went away as the old stewards died off. The consequences speak for themselves.
The state primary, sadly, produced no surprises. There was a time when Scott Smith, successful former mayor of Mesa, constructive conservative, pragmatist, (gasp!) moderate and Mormon would have been a shoe-in for the Republican gubernatorial spot. Perhaps the LDS vote was split with Ken Bennett.
I'm sure Smith wasn't kooky enough. Photos of him shaking hands with our Kenyan Socialist Overlord were widely circulated to scare the old Anglos. So prepare for Gov. Ducey — unless Democrats are willing to fight.
And don't buy the meme about "independents" as the decisive force in state politics. Few voters who claim that label really are independent. They lean right or left, and the Arizona independents are overwhelmingly "conservative" (i.e., Kooks). The age-old question remains: "Will the Mexicans vote?"
Mayor Greg Stanton announced a 30-year plan to expand light rail (WBIYB). It is apparently supported by everyone on Council — even "Better Call Sal" DiCiccio — except for Kook Jim Waring.
This is good, right and proper, but a few words of caution. First, metro Phoenix badly needs heavy commuter rail to the East Valley and the west and northwest suburbs. Light rail won't serve every need. Second, the bus system needs more frequent schedules on heavily traveled routes. Third, don't make the mistake of bypassing Union Station with the south line — it would make an ideal commuter rail and Amtrak hub. Fourth, the city must implement an economic-development strategy to fight back against all the business going to such car-dependent places as the "Price Corridor." Dallas, slightly less populous than Phoenix, already has 90 miles of light rail. It will be interesting to see what Phoenix is like in 30 years.
The Republic's excellent Betty Reid wrote about aspirations to add more high-rises downtown. I hope they happen, although most are mid-rises. The story includes this from my friend Will Bruder, who said "downtown still needs three things: a pedestrian/bike lifestyle, a modern streetcar and a single distinct high-rise...San Diego has a "great downtown" where the airport and the high-rises are located close together. People walk or ride bikes.
Downtown won't really work based on the spec/sprawl economy left in the metropolitan area. It lacks any champions among the developers and leasing playerz, as benefits Tempe's lakefront. I go back to the lack of an economic-development strategy aggressively focused on downtown and Midtown. Nobody is going to finance a skyscraper above the horrid Central Station without major corporate tenants. ASU students only go so far.
Check out the stories on the City Desk and you will see that every successful downtown is luring major corporate investment, including headquarters. All over America, we are seeing a "back-to-the-city" movement of companies — they not only like the convenience, but need to lure high-skilled young workers that demands a vibrant, dense center city. The lack of this in downtown Phoenix is a key component of the metro area's limited, coughing economy and limited offerings in attracting global talent.
While I was away riots came to suburbia, the militants we created with our invasion of Iraq are on the march and Russia is nibbling away at Ukraine. More to come.