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Hubris Over Humanity: The Failures of Social Experiments in Los Angeles

 Southern California, especially Los Angeles, has a proud tradition of risk-taking and experimentation on a grand scale. In the early 20th century, a few Eastern filmmakers gambled  and moved west to make movies in what was then a small town called Los Angeles. They wanted to take advantage of LA’s good weather, cheap land, and abundant sunshine. Their gamble paid off commercially and artistically.  Filmmaking became a huge industry, and Hollywood movies grew to an art form rivaled only by German expressionism of the 1920’s.  About the time the movie industry was expanding, Aimee Semple McPherson, an itinerant tent preacher from the Midwest, looked at a growing L.A. and saw the potential for a new kind of evangelical church movement.  She invented the modern megachurch when she built her huge Foursquare temple just north of Echo Park.  Lockheed’s fabled Skunk Works started out as a World War II-era experimental aircraft facility that went on to produce many military and civil aviation innovations. From the oil industry to rock music, L.A. has always had an affinity for trying new ways of doing things people from other areas would never dare. 

We know not all experiments work.  WD-40 takes its name from Water Displacement formula number 40, meaning there were 39 previous versions that didn’t work. Thomas Edison tried dozens of lightbulb materials before hitting on a tungsten filament.  The hallmark of a true innovator is a willingness to try new things combined with the ability to admit when they don’t work. The line between innovation and hubris is recognizing failure and adjusting your approach. 

Los Angeles is quickly devolving into a theoretical city with plenty of hubris and little humility.  Special interest groups with narrow and single-minded social agendas keep pushing theories that have little or no relation to the reality of life on the ground. Whether it’s homelessness, housing, or transportation, these groups are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they are willing to ignore reality and the best interests of those they are supposed to be helping.  

We already know Housing First, which is rooted in the theories of an NYU professor, was rolled out with little real-world proof of success, is a near universal failure.  Despite more than 20 years of attempts to make it work, there are more unhoused people than ever on L.A.’s streets.  Ignoring the success of shelter-forward programs like the one used in New York City, and of Housing Readiness programs like those of Union Rescue Mission, Housing First advocates continue to insist it is the superior theory.  Voters have shown they are more than willing to fund effective programs by approving the Mental Health Services Act, and measures H, HHH, and ULA. Yet, despite billions of dollars showered on Housing First programs, the crisis has only worsened. Housing First advocates insist housing is the one true solution to homelessness, despite overwhelming evidence that untreated mental illness and substance abuse is prevalent among the unhoused population.  In a particularly grotesque example of the consequences of this refusal to recognize the reality of the homelessness crisis, the County Board of Supervisors recently allowed the Department of Mental Health to delay implementing the state’s broadened definition of gravely disabled, meaning people with the most serious mental and drug use problems will be left on the street.  Exacerbating its inaction on mental illness, the Board narrowly approved support for the Supreme Court case challenging the Boise decision.  In the eyes of some members of the Board of Supervisors, it is fine to deny the unhoused needed services while also doing nothing to get them off the streets. Like most of our elected leaders, they are so enmeshed in Housing First’s allure they cannot admit the experiment isn’t working. 

Embracing Housing First theories has real-world consequences as highlighted by an LA Times article on closure of a downtown school for the arts. The Academy of Media Arts occupies space in the Grand Hotel, which it shares with homeless people living in rooms provided by the Inside Safe program.  For its $100,000 in monthly rent, the school has experienced drug paraphernalia on its grounds, human waste and other refuse strewn on its campus, and violent encounters with disturbed homeless people.  It has lost so many students it was forced to suspend operations. 

While Housing First advocates are busy trying to convince us their theories are working, alternative transportation advocates are trying to impose their social agenda on the wider public.  Their latest attempt is Measure HLA, or the “Safe Streets” initiative. HLA supporters like Streets for All (SFA) are pushing a false narrative that the only way to make L.A.’s streets safer is by reducing auto traffic through a program of “road diets” and other restrictive measures. As it did with its proposal for demolishing the 90 freeway, SFA uses deceptive statistics to push its agenda.  For example, its has posted billboards on Vermont Ave. reading “More people die in accidents on Vermont Ave. than in the State of Vermont”.  What SFA doesn’t tell you is Vermont’s population is 16 percent of the City of L.A.’s, and its traffic deaths per 100,000 are actually higher than California’s.  Pro-HLA advertising also stresses children’s safety, trying to paint opposition to the measure as a callous disregard for the lives of children. What they don’t say is how many of the vehicle-related deaths of children (24 in 2023) might be prevented by HLA. Unless cars are banned altogether, there will always be some risk to people of any age, riders and pedestrians alike.

 

One of the base premises of HLA is to make driving so miserable people will be forced to ride bikes or use public transportation.  To SFA, the ends justify the means, and if people with real-life needs like seniors, tradespeople, those with mobility issues or anyone else who can’t ride a bike suffer, its all in the greater cause of “transportation equity”.  HLA’s proponents claim it comes at no cost to taxpayers, but it will actually redirect funding from street maintenance to wasteful projects like the $2 million bike path to nowhere.  According to an analysis by the City’s Chief Administrative Officer, HLA will cost at least $2.5 billion over the next 10 years, costs the city can ill afford given current budget deficits. That’s the equivalent of a new Project Inside Safe every year for 10 years. HLA also contains a provision that will make it easier for organizations to sue the city if it doesn’t implement its requirements quickly enough, opening a new channel for funding advocacy groups. Just as homelessness consumes more than 10 percent of the city’s budget to benefit one percent of its population, alternative transportation advocates demand a grossly disproportionate share of transportation spending to benefit a small fraction of the traveling public. 

Massive development hasn’t done anything to make housing affordable, but the theories say it should, so if we need to wipe out a freeway to build apartments, so be it.  It’s okay to destroy single family neighborhoods and build huge apartment buildings even though most of the apartments will be at or above market.  Despite experts like Dr. Michael Storper, who debunks massive development, advocates continue to promote high density legislation, as they benefit from generous support from corporate developers. As Dick Platkin explains here, current development policies do little to provide affordable housing while enriching large real estate corporations. 

In the final analysis, and regardless if advocates really believe in their causes or just see a way to score easy taxpayer money, they view Los Angeles as little more than a huge petri dish for their social experiments. To them, L.A. isn’t a real, living, and diverse city with nearly four million unique individuals who are trying to live their best lives.  Advocates believe, due to their moral or intellectual superiority, they have a right--indeed a duty—to dictate their policies to a benighted and ignorant public that doesn’t know what’s good for it. If the facts need to be shaded for the greater good, so be it.  If it means thousands of people need to be left on the street while groups like Knock L.A. clamor for their vision of economic justice, that’s a price that needs to be paid (not by members of the organizations themselves, of course). If the dream of home ownership, and the generational wealth that comes with it, has to be crushed for the sake of building soulless massive apartment complexes, its worth it if it achieves advocates’ visions of economic equity. 

Advocates market their programs by feeding a sense of inter-generational grievance and economic inequality.  When their agendas can’t be supported by real data, facts, or common sense, advocates fall back on name-calling and insults. People who question the billions wasted on ineffective homelessness programs are NIMBY’s.  If you question policies that don’t produce more affordable housing, you’re elitist.  If you oppose a measure that will inhibit investments in transportation infrastructure but benefit a tiny fraction of the population, you are an entitled Boomer.  They convince people in the 20’s and 30’s that something is being taken from them by those who came before, stoking economic prejudices by ignoring the sacrifices, self-discipline, and strategic decisions made by previous generations.  Instead of advocating for policies that will make all types of housing more affordable, they support policies that impose mass development on all communities, even though the demand for single family homes is culturally embedded in the American psyche. By creating generational and economic divisions, advocate groups enflame passion over reason, guaranteeing themselves a fanatic base and the votes and financial support that comes with it.  

These strategies would be completely alien to earlier social innovators like FDR and John Kenneth Galbraith.  To them, economic equality was not a zero-sum game with winners and losers.  The object of government wasn’t to create wealth for one group by taking it from another, but to open opportunities for as many people as possible. They measured program success by the number of people who benefitted from them, not by how well they met a theoretical belief system.  A famous legend says that at the height of the New Deal, one of his economic advisors asked FDR if he thought all of the programs he enacted were providing the “right” kind of employment for people.  He replied that as long they were working, any employment was good.  He focused on results, not process.  The New Deal benefitted people across the employment spectrum, from artists to laborers. Modern-day advocates would be horrified if their single-minded policies benefitted the general population; organizations like Streets for All can’t conceive of a transportation plan that benefits both auto drivers and bikers.  Knock LA’s leaders need to demonize homeowners to justify their demand for housing of the type and location they desire. 

Theories are essential to challenge the status quo, to open paths to new knowledge, and to create real change.  But theory without results has no value.  Theory wedded to political extremes is dangerous.  By continuing to push failed theories of homelessness, housing, and transportation, advocacy groups have separated themselves from the reality of those they claim to represent.  The ever-increasing number of homeless people, the failure to make progress on affordable housing, and ineffective transportation policies, are the products of organizations more interested in their own agendas (and finances) than in actually achieving meaningful change.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)


Tim Campbell

February 15 2024

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