The Bell Curve: Citizens and their interests are out-muscled

My youngest daughter, Debby, lives in Boulder, Colo., and I've made a fair number of trips via Denver International Airport to visit her. And one of the satisfactions is the drive to and from that airport. I've never failed to admire the beauty of the surroundings en route. I'm not talking about the foothills of the rugged Rocky Mountains. I admire them, too, of course. But given our current airport history, I'm referring to the admirable site chosen by public officials for a new airport when the needs of Denver and its surrounding cities outgrew the old one.

Denver officials avoided all the easy traps in their planning. No bad timing by taking on an outrageous price tag for expansion of an old airport in a shrinking economy with declining passengers. No further destruction of property values by adding to the volume and frequency of aircraft noise, rather than seeking a site more than five miles removed from take-off noise. No allowance of special interests overpowering the wishes and concerns of the residents who would be punished by expansion at the old site when good options are available.

And, finally, no traffic jams, coming or going.

Rehashing all this on a slow news day offers a fertile ground for cynicism or, perhaps, a question for the Daily Pilot's "In Theory" column. What, we might ask, would be God's position on the expansion of John Wayne Airport?

Or, more currently, on the light show at Triangle Square?

Or, to put it more pragmatically, even with God on their side will the "few" — the adjective comes from a light supporter — folks facing the distraction of constantly flashing lights get a decent hearing when they appear at the Oct. 5 Costa Mesa City Council meeting?

That, then, leads to a bigger question. Wherever God comes down, how do the citizens under the flight path of an extended airport get a level playing field on which to present their case when they are outgunned, out funded and overpowered? The prevailing attitude of those in power often appears to be contempt. The airport expansion goes quietly on, oblivious and mostly non-responsive to criticism, and the flashing lights are slipped under the door by city planners in case anyone is watching.

Without question there are strong arguments on both sides that deserve to be aired, not ignored. That could be accomplished in two ways. Those with the power could back off at least enough to simulate a level playing field, or the powerless could attract a powerful ally that would demand mutual respect.

Neither option would appear to be operating in the two samples offered. That's why an announcement last week by President Obama — even if mostly symbolic in our examples — seemed so timely. The president appointed a Harvard Law School professor named Elizabeth Warren to head up the creation of a powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren is a consumer advocate with a pedigree as long as a mortgage package and an agenda that gives some muscle to a government program that the power brokers, both economic and political, mostly fear: a level playing field for citizen action groups tired of watching elections and corporate favors being bought.

Warren's expertise is in bankruptcy law, but her commitment to consumer protection ranges to a bestselling book she wrote titled "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke." While they happily make use of the Protection Bureau, the political tea drinkers will call it socialism, of course, and rail that the government has found a new path for invading our lives. Meanwhile, Warren will be planting level playing fields and promising such things as, "The time for hiding tricks and traps in the fine print is over."

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A small afterthought: As a devoted reader, I firmly believe that the "In Theory" panel should include a member of the laity. It is also my conviction that God would look kindly on such a move. This will probably subject me to demands for proof of God's involvement from the cynics, but we'll save that for another column. Or maybe just slip it under the door, which almost worked for the Planning Commission's vote on the lights at Triangle Square.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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