When your city’s civic leaders issue a big report called “A Time for Truth,” it’s natural to wonder if they’re admitting that everything they’ve told you in the past is bull.
And if they’re actually leveling with you now.
The city of Los Angeles—where examples of the weakness of civic life are outnumbered only by examples of elite hand-wringing over the weakness of civic life—recently saw the release of just such a report, by a committee of 12 worthies (led by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor and former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner) from the political, business, labor, and philanthropic worlds. Its central point: L.A. is too apathetic and passive about planning for the future.
Such reports aren’t new here. But what’s interesting about “A Time for Truth” is that it says more (sometimes unintentionally) about L.A. and California than previous exercises. “A Time for Truth” is relatively short by blue-ribbon commission standards—less than 50 pages, including notes—and it’s easy to read. Its most trenchant observations involve the failure of Los Angeles-area governments to collaborate in preserving economic engines that are important not only locally but also statewide.
The neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could work together—as do the ports in New York and New Jersey (at least when Governor Christie’s people aren’t blocking traffic)—but instead compete against each other. L.A.’s governments have done very little to keep the big popcorn action movies that drive Hollywood economics from moving elsewhere. The cities of L.A., Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica maintain separate efforts to attract international tourists even though, as the report notes, “it would take a discerning tourist from China to spot the difference in sand while walking the sidewalk between Santa Monica and Venice or to realize she’s crossed into a different city when leaving her hotel in Beverly Hills to visit the Getty.”
But beyond such nuggets, “A Time for Truth” speaks loudest because of what is authors have left out. Indeed, the report’s own history is as telling as anything in it. In the heat of last year’s mayoral election, leading politicians and wise men declared the city’s problems too deep to be properly debated in an election. So L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson asked Kantor to put together a commission, called the Los Angeles 2020 Commission in a nod to the end of this decade, to take a long-term look. And it has done so, now that our elections are safely over, because L.A. elections, our civic elites seem to agree, must not be a “Time for Truth.”
The report is oddball. It treats L.A. as if its destiny were likely to be determined by the city government and finances, a weird stance in a place that has succeeded and prospered throughout its history more in spite of than because of thoughtful local governance. And the report’s obsession with the city budget is hard to understand when one recognizes that the Los Angeles metropolitan area has an annual GDP of just under $800 billion, while the city budget, at less than $8 billion, is just 1 percent of that. For context: Disney has annual revenues of $42 billion and a market capitalization of $127 billion.
The report also omits crucial context: City government in Los Angeles is destined to be dysfunctional because Los Angeles has the bad fortune to be located in California. And California has a famously centralized governing system that limits the ability of local officials to raise revenues and make long-term decisions. One irony of the report is that California’s governing centralization has been nurtured and protected by the very same business leaders (they like how centralization limits taxes) and labor elites (they like how centralization adds to their political power) that make up the 2020 Commission.
“A Time for Truth” is only the first of two reports the commission will produce. “A Time for Truth” has “defined the problem,” and the second report, expected shortly, will offer solutions. Defining the problem before proposing solutions sounds logical, but this methodology is backward and wrong. Complicated problems—like those of 21st century Los Angeles—can’t be easily defined; that’s what makes them complicated. And as anyone who has ever tried to figure out what’s wrong with her kitchen sink knows, the best way to understand a difficult problem is to try solutions first.
Perhaps because it doesn’t grapple with different ways to improve Los Angeles, “A Time for Truth” misses real problems. The biggest is how three trends—L.A.’s rapidly aging population, a large decline in the number of new immigrants arriving here, and our failure to have enough children—pose a threat to what was one of our greatest assets: our diversity. While we’re attracting fewer new humans, the rest of the country grows more diverse. Yet the report states, blissfully and mistakenly, that we remain the country’s most diverse place: “Our ethnic diversity provides a pool of human capital unmatched anywhere else in the country.” But the real truth is that census figures show we’ve fallen to third in ethnic diversity, behind Houston and New York City.
The most grating thing about the report is that it portrays Angelenos—a struggling, scrambling, hard-working bunch—as contentedly waiting around for something better to save us from our decline. “A Time for Truth,” sticks in the knife with a literary reference: “Like the hapless Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield, our wishful response to continued economic decline and impending fiscal crisis has become a habitual: ‘Something, my dear Copperfield, will turn up.’”
Such a reading of Charles Dickens is incomplete—and terribly unfair to Micawber and to Angelenos. Micawber was not hapless. He was a victim of powerful, foolish people in London, and did his best to cope with the injustices visited upon him, including being sent to debtors’ prison. But he persevered, emerged from prison, and, ignoring those who said he wouldn’t amount to much, eventually emigrated from England to Australia. There he became a successful businessman and respected city official.
The truth is, we could use more characters like him in Los Angeles.
Cross-posted at Zocalo Public Square.