… when your sleep debt gets referred to a collection agency.
Although most people on the east coast (and many people here) haven’t realized it yet, Eric Garcetti was elected Mayor of Los Angeles on Tuesday. I’m pleased. I voted for him, and despite the fiscal and governance difficulties that he faces, I think he will do a good job as much any Los Angeles mayor can.
Much of the media has been taken up with Garcetti’s status as the City’s first Jewish mayor. In fact, he is quite the hybrid, much like the city itself: his Mom is Jewish, his Dad (former LA County DA Gil Garcetti) is of Italian descent, but the family lived in Mexico for a couple of generations, making him also something of a Latino. Perfect for a Los Angeles politician.
But he is going to have to do better than this if he wants to get real credibility among the Latino population (which he carried in the election). Addressing an east side audience, Garcetti declared:
Soy uno de vosotros.
That literally means, “I am one of you,” and the notion is standard politician fare. Notice something? For “you”, Garcetti used vosotros, a form that is perfectly grammatically correct, but is basically only used in Spain. It supposedly means something like “you guys” in my understanding: it is the plural form of tu. But I have never heard it used in Latin America or among Latinos in the United States.
A colleague of mine learned how to speak Spanish in Spain, and then went to Argentina on an exchange. He used vosotros, and, he says, “my hosts thought it was absolutely adorable, like speaking with an English accent.” And that’s with Argentinians, who have their own series of strange words, and make every effort to dissociate themselves from the rest of Latin America. (See Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for more). The closest comparison I could make would be something like, “Hey — I’m down with thee.”
In fact, this is such an obvious mistake I’m wondering whether it was reported correctly. But I’ve now heard it from different places. Anyone else have a different take — has anyone heard it used among Latinos in the United States? We would love to hear from thee.
Six short essays, by a mix of hawks, doves, and analysts: Beau Kilmer, Michelle Alexander, Kim Rueben, A. Eden Evans, Garrett Peck, and some guy with a beard. I find it somewhat remarkable that, at this late date, it’s still possible to rant against legalization without considering the costs of prohibition, or vice versa, but in fact the Times is unusual in having four people with various analytical takes and only one hawk and one dove.
At yesterday’s Brookings/WOLA Congressional briefing on cannabis policy, I made my usual argument that (in rough numbers) 80% of the users of almost any drug use it moderately, take no harm from it, and do no harm to others, but that the other 20%, who use more than is good for them, account for 80% of the consumption and an even larger fraction of damage to themselves and others. My conclusion from that was the necessity of regulation, since the industry that sells the drug (or offers other potentially habit-forming services such as gambling) will always be financially dependent on dependent problem users, while the public interest is in serving the desires of non-dependent non-problem users while minimizing the number of dependent users.
Jonathan Rauch, who heads the Brookings side of the project, found that line of argument troubling. He asked me whether the interests of the responsible 80% should really have to yield to the interests of the irresponsible 20%. (Since the two groups aren’t distinguishable at a glance, there’s no way of restricting the consumption of problem users without somewhat inconveniencing non-problem users.)
That question, asked by someone whose intellect and ethical sensibility I have come to respect, led me to reflect on the difference between a moralistic or rights-based approach to a problem such as this one and a policy-analytic or outcomes-based approach. If you think of problem users and non-problem users as different people, it’s natural to ask which group’s interests ought to make way for the other’s. That seems to be a moral or constitutional question. But if you think of yourself as a potential user of a drug (or, as Jonathan suggested to me, the parent of a potential user), unable to know in advance whether your (or your child’s) use will remain controlled or will instead progress to dependency, and ask how much inconvenience in controlled use you want to sacrifice for protection against a bad habit, then you confront a practical problem rather than a moral one.
(Some readers will recognize in this Schelling’s solution to the puzzle of why it’s justified to save a larger rather than a smaller number of lives, when that’s the choice; if you imagine yourself as a member of one of the two groups, without knowing which one, it’s obvious you’d prefer a higher probability of survival to a lower one. Jonathan instead recognized this as a Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance argument, which also seems right to me.)
Of course, this same approach can be applied well beyond drug policy. Asking “How much do the non-poor owe to the poor?” is a moral question. Asking “How much protection would a reasonable person want against the risk of poverty?” sounds more like a computation. Of course, if you think of yourself as naturally immune to the risks of drug abuse or of poverty, you’ll be more inclined to let the drug abusers, and the poor, go hang. But that seems to me compatible neither with the Categorical Imperative nor with the Golden Rule. If we accept arguments from symmetry in physics, why not in ethics?
In the latest edition of his well-known textbook on UK domestic policy, LSE Professor Howard Glennerster tells the remarkable story of how national government support for housing the elderly exploded under Margaret Thatcher. In the decades after the war, local government authorities provided some social housing for the elderly who had nowhere else to turn. Technically, an elderly person also had the right to move into a privately-managed home with the bill paid by the national government. But this happened very rarely until the Thatcher government spelled the possibility out in explicit regulation, making the public generally aware of it for the first time.
Glennerster describes the stunningly rapid adaptation of the British:
People began to rid their elderly relatives of their assets and claim [the housing benefit]. Local authorities, under pressure to cut spending, began to see that if they closed homes or privatized them the old people could still be looked after in residential care and the central government would have to pay for them through the social security scheme. Private [old age] home owners began to realize that if they increased fees locally in line with other homes the social security scheme would have to pay up.
The result, under the putatively tight-fisted Thatcher government, was that Social Security spending on old age homes increased from £10 million to £2,072 million, a more than 200-fold increase over 12 years!
Glennerster, a Labour Party man down to his bones, concedes the reality that is usually trumpeted by conservatives:
There could be no better example of the way individuals will change their behaviour in fairly ruthless ways to avail themselves of public money.
There’s something arguably wrong with every sport; how could it not be so? Soccer doesn’t have enough scoring for game scores to be a good indicator of relative performance, football and flat racing hurt their players, NASCAR is climate-hostile, and on and on. The rules of life – laws – are perpetually flawed too, but we constantly try to fix them. I think sport authorities should be more willing than they are to fix the games from time to time, recognizing that some fixes will be mistakes (the DH in baseball was silly and remains so). Taller and better players have reduced basketball to “the teams run down the court and somebody puts the ball through the net. Then they run back and someone puts the ball in the other net. Occasionally the ball doesn’t go in the net: the team that has fewest of these mistakes wins.” The idea is on the table to raise the net, analogous to the idea (not on the table, though I wish it were) to enlarge the soccer goal by a foot or two each way, and to banning anchored putting in golf.
The last of these is scheduled not to happen until 2016; easing transitions is often a good idea, but does it take three years for golfers to put their long putter in the attic and buy another? The basketball idea, which makes sense, raises the interesting question, should we pick a number, say one foot, and raise all the hoops that much at once, or raise them an inch every season until we’re happy with the result? Sometimes we change laws a lot all at once, like allowing same-sex marriage; sometimes we make small adjustments, like the inflation adjustment in Social Security payments.
Some things have to be highly quantized: for the Brits to convert to right-side driving in stages, as the joke goes (“for the first week, the new rules will only apply to buses and trucks”) would be a bad idea. But others allow for gradual change. A one-foot change all at once would greatly devalue the muscle memory of all players, but gradual change would keep those skills mostly in service as the transition occurred. I don’t think the mechanical costs of converting goals to be adjustable in this way are as daunting as, say, making soccer goals adjustable.
Oklahoma is an oil state. Oklahomans vote for people like senators Inhofe and Coburn, who rail at the ‘myth’ of climate change. After all, there are millions and millions of dollars still to earn selling oil to burn: what more evidence does a reasonable Sooner need?
People who think science is more than a political flag one can choose to wave or not, depending on whether there’s profit in it, are pretty sure that one of the effects of global warming is increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.
I wish I believed that a just Providence sent things like today’s tornado upon people who vote for oil-whore Oklahoma Republicans. I don’t, but could the devastation in Moore possibly give the survivors something to think about along these lines?
UPDATE (21 May):
I obviously wrote the foregoing too quickly and too elliptically. Let me unpack it here:
The reference to a just Providence was a pointer to the repeated meme, trotted out (for example) after Katrina, that natural disasters happen to people who deserve to be punished. The reason I “wish I believed that” is that if I did, I would feel OK about the consequences, I guess even the children whose school was shredded around them. But I don’t: I believe natural systems are ordered by an amoral, implacable, scientific reality that we understand much better by taking it seriously and being smart than by theodicy. I believe actions like putting carbon back in the air from underground as fast as possible have consequences, consequences that fall most heavily on the least deserving: the poor people who will not have enough to eat as floods and droughts deepen and come more often, and all the children still unborn around the world who didn’t get to dance at the fossil fuel party but will still have to figure out how to live in a toasted planet – yes, and children in tornado alley who never voted for anyone.
I also believe that the time to talk about politics and how we engage with that amoral reality is while the manifestations of foolishness, especially their injustice, are salient, and that doing so shows respect and sympathy for those who suffered and died for no good reason other than the cupidity of their leadership and its wilful ignorance (or worse, putative ignorance)
Remind me to talk to Bill Keller more often. Not many reporters will expend the effort to understand the nuances of a complex issue and make them understandable to non-specialist readers. Key quote: “Can we get to ‘orderly market’ without passing through ‘way too stoned’?”
Tomorrow, Los Angeles voters go to the polls to elect a new Mayor. (At least a few of them, anyway: current estimates predict onyl 25% turnout, about which more later). In September, New Yorkers will do the same. And depending upon the way things turn out, political and cultural reporters could have a field day.
If Christine Quinn and Wendy Greuel win in their respective cities, we will have female mayors of both cities for the first time. And the press will have a lot of fun with it, because the two women seem to epitomize their cities’ personalities. Quinn is famously nasty and vicious, character traits she is now trying to ameliorate at least publicly. Much less famously, but just as truly, Greuel is quite nice: I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and you can’t deny that she is personally a very nice person.
And if you think about it, that is true more broadly. If Anthony Weiner runs for NYC mayor, we’ll get another jerk trying to get to Gracie Mansion. Greuel’s rival, Eric Garcetti, whom I’ve also known for a long time, is likewise very friendly and nice. Even the campaign by realistic standards has been pretty tame.
If you think about New York mayors, they are hardly aiming for Mr. Congeniality: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and even Michael Bloomberg aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to hang out with. But on the left coast, Tom Bradley almost epitomized mellow moderation; Antonio Villaraigosa is probably too personally charming for his own good; Jim Hahn might not have been the sharpest pencil in the cup but is a genuiunely nice guy; even Richard Riordan is pretty friendly and cordial. David Dinkins, of course, was notably polite and courtly — and seemed out of his element because of it.
Why is this? Is it just New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice? Maybe, but perhaps this is something bigger going on here.
New York mayors wield vast power. They control huge departments, manage an enormous budget, and dominate the city politically. New York City comprises five different county governments and thus contains the counties’ power. The New York mayor’s problem is keeping control over the whole thing, not to mention corralling a notoriously-fractious urban political party (and sometimes more than that if they have the Liberal or Conservative endorsement). The Mayor also plays a major role in appointing the Board of Education. Hizzoner has to knock heads to get anything done.
In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the Mayor is relatively weak. Los Angeles city government is dominated by civil service personnel, whom the Mayor can’t just order around. Before 1992, this was even the case with the Police Department: I distinctly remember my east coast friends saying to me, “If Tom Bradley hates Daryl Gates so much, why doesn’t he just fire him?” Answer: he couldn’t. And he still can’t: the police chief has a five-year term. Even with other departments, the Mayor can’t appoint dozens and dozens of officials: instead, he appoints usually five-member volunteer commissioners, who, because they are volunteers, are usually dominated by professional civil service staff. That is not a recipe for strong executive leadership.
The Los Angeles mayor has no control over the school district or the Board of Education. The Los Angeles City Council only has 15 members, making each councilmember the monarch of his or her district; in New York, there are so many councilmembers that they comparatively little power, although not negligible. The City of Los Angeles has no control over the vastly bigger County of Los Angeles. The Mayor of New York can call up the Brooklyn borough President to berate and threaten him: in Los Angeles, the only way the City get the County to what it wants is through a lawsuit.
Or persuasion. The Mayor of Los Angeles has to persuade all these other constituencies to do what he or she wants: they can’t bully or force them. Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, and so the Mayor doesn’t even have a political organization to use. The only way a Los Angeles Mayor will be effective will be through the patient and often-maddening business of assembling political coalitions, community groups, public sector unions, developers, etc. A screamer in Los Angeles City Hall is someone who literally has no chance of success.
No wonder, then, that voters seem so uninterested: it’s not abundantly clear what precisely the Mayor is supposed to do, a condition that the early 20th century Progressives who framed the Los Angeles charter wanted.
The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died last week at the age of 88, made a similar point about the personalities of Presidents and Prime Ministers. A President has to try to use the power of the bully pulpit and his dominance over the executive branch to get things done. A Prime Minister, on the other hand, has to use persuasion to maintain his party coalition — if he doesn’t, he’ll get kicked out by his own caucus. I think that that works here.
Whether Garcetti or Greuel wins tomorrow, the next Los Angeles mayor will be a pretty nice person. Whether Quinn or Weiner or someone else wins in New York, the next New York mayor will probably be something of a jerk. But the political structure will have as much to do with this as any tired cultural stereotypes.