Has Los Angeles Fallen, or Was it Pushed?

The LA 2020 Commission has Hollywood in its sights.
The LA 2020 Commission mostly ignored Hollywood.

I bet you have been recently thinking: How can we keep Los Angeles from turning into a post-apocalyptic wasteland like Detroit?  The Los Angeles 2020 Commission has the answers.  Well, they hedge a bit and don’t claim to have ALL the answers.  Their keen analysis identified several problems in Los Angeles:

  1. Jobs
  2. Poverty
  3. Traffic
  4. Poor education
  5. Decaying infrastructure resulting from budget woes

There is no denying that they’ve seen through the glamorous veneer of Los Angeles to the hard truths that are blindingly obvious to anyone who drives around for a while and maybe glances at someone else’s L.A. Times.

What is less obvious is that their report’s rather general prescriptions are NOT designed to address the root causes of the problems.  Sure, their initial report, A Time for Truth identified those five major challenges, but it did NOT identify any root causes.

It’s actually somewhat obvious that traffic is terrible.  In fact, I don’t need 13 civic leaders to prepare a study to tell me that.  It is much harder to put your finger on the root causes of that and other problems.  Moreover, the almost insurmountable challenge is to gain consensus on the root causes.

Neither report describes much in the way of root causes, although they mention taxes and regulation in passing.  They also mention a number of problems with governance of the city: deceptive communications from the city to the citizens, poor citizen engagement and low voter turnout.   So, their recommendations skip the hard problems, the 60% graduation rate and the worst job record of any major city in their comparison for the last 20 years, and they tackle the nebulous issues with feel good solutions.  Here is their ten point plan:

  1. Improve transparency in government by creating  an Office of Transparency and Accountability
  2. Also create an independent oversight for DWP
  3. And hold municipal elections at the same time as state and federal ones
  4. Improve city budgets by adopting a “Truth in Budgeting Ordinance”
  5. Also, be honest about the cost of future obligations (e.g., pensions)
  6. And establish a Commission on Retirement Security to report back in 120 days
  7. Turning to jobs, combine the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach into the biggest in the western hemisphere
  8. Also, establish a regional tourism authority
  9. And focus on economic clusters, like bioscience and technology, manufacturing, environmental testing and regulation
  10. And finally, update 35 Community Plans covering transit, public safety, education, recreation, workspace

Whew, that was boring.  Sorry to list the whole thing, but now I can credibly show how useless it is.

The first six are about better governance.  They all seem reasonable, and I will deign to give them a pass.  No blinding insight that will save humanity, but they are probably improvements.  The last four are the “economic” solutions, and they are a “cluster” alright.

First, merging the two local ports into one entity for pricing and capital planning purposes would effectively make it a local monopoly, which is only good for the owner of the monopoly.  For everyone else, monopolies are bad because they reduce economic activity and innovation.  Most likely, the ports will stop competing with one another and set higher prices, which will reduce shipping activity.  The ports will earn more revenue with less effort, but that then means that the railroads, trucks, local restaurants, janitors, importers and everyone else will have less work to do.  “Not enough local monopolies” was NOT among the unstated root causes of L.A.’s woes.

As for a “regional tourism authority,” that is a fine idea.  Instead of four, five or six local cities spending their advertising dollars on the other side of the Pacific, we will have a coordinated effort, which sounds fine to me.

You probably think that the recommendation to “focus on economic clusters” was pretty robust in the report and that I just simplified it down to a meaninglessly vague bullet point, but nope.  That is about it.  How would we focus on them?  Do we build a huge magnifying glass and hover it over them until their wings burn off?  I don’t know.  The report didn’t say.  Sounds kind of mean, though.  Next.

Finally, updating 35 community plans sounds almost harmless.  Some people think that plans will solve all their problems, about which I am skeptical.  In fact, the initial report indicated that Mayor Bradley had a report similar to A Time for Truth produced in 1988, and it identified the same issues, so you can guess how effective that was.  But, I have come around to the Commission’s way of thinking that community plans, if done right, are probably a good first step.   The key is doing them right: create a vision, set general guidelines and avoid over-engineering.  A quote from Dee Hock, the former CEO of Visa, put it nicely:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.”

And we could really use some “intelligent behavior” about now.  The problem is that without identifying the root causes of the issues, it is pretty hard to engage in intelligent problem solving.