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.
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 from the political, business, labor and philanthropic worlds. Its central point: Los Angeles is too apathetic 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 Los Angeles and California than previous exercises. 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 Gov. Christie’s people aren’t blocking traffic) – but instead compete against each other. The cities of Los Angeles, 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 L.A.’s economic problems needed longer-term consideration. So L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson asked former U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor to put together a commission to take a long-term look. And now that our elections are safely over, the commission has issued its report, because L.A. elections, our civic elites seem to agree, must not be a “Time for Truth.”
The resulting document treats Los Angeles as if its destiny were likely to be determined by city government and its finances, a weird stance in a city that has prospered throughout its history more in spite of than because of thoughtful local governance.
The obsession of “A Time for Truth” 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. 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, where our famously centralized governing system limits the ability of local officials to raise revenues and make long-term decisions.
“A Time for Truth” is only the first of two reports the commission will produce. Now that “A Time for Truth” has “defined the problem,” the second report, expected shortly, will offer solutions. Defining the problem before proposing solutions sounds logical, but this methodology is backwards. 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.
And “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 humans, the rest of the country grows more diverse. Yet the report states, mistakenly, that “our ethnic diversity provides a pool of human capital unmatched anywhere else in the country.” Census figures show Houston and New York City are more ethnically diverse.
The most grating thing about the report is that it portrays Angelenos – a struggling, scrambling bunch – as contentedly waiting around for something 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 terribly unfair to Micawber and to Angelenos. Micawber was not hapless. He did his best to cope with the injustices visited upon him by London’s elite, including being sent to debtors’ prison. But he persevered and 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.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square (www/zocalopublicsquare.org).