From the Language Police Blotter: Vosotros

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.

New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice: A Structural Explanation

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.

Los Angeles v. San Francisco Redux: Analogy of the Day

More deep thoughts about the California split.

Given the NoCal v. SoCal fight that my World Series post precipitated, I thought I should offer another very apt analogy.  This comes via my friend and colleague Ann Carlson:

The bay area is Canada.  LA is the U.S.  We hardly notice them; they think obsessively about not being us.

I think that that’s right.  Moreover, Canada/SF is colder and lower in population than US/LA.  Both types of northerners are also at times insufferably smug.

One could finally argue that the northerners more progressive politically, although that’s trickier: for the City of Los Angeles, that holds very weakly, and since San Francisco is a county as well as a city, issues arise there that do not arise in the City of Los Angeles.  Your mileage may vary.

That is all.

Political Metaphor Alert: World Series Edition and the Plight of a Democratic Dodger Fan

Nancy Pelosi v. George W. Bush in the World Series? Maybe.

As a lifelong hater of the Evil Empire, I’m never inclined to write off the Yankees.  But with the Rangers crushing them for a third time in a row, and taking a commanding lead in the American League Championship Series, the smart money is on Texas.

Over in the National League, things are far more up in the air, but the Giants are in an excellent position, leading the series 2-1.

So if present trends continue, the World Series will be San Francisco v. Texas.  You couldn’t ask for a better political metaphor. 

 Ever since my grandpa told me about dodging trolleys outside Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Robins, and then took me to Oldtimers Day 1972 at Dodger Stadium, when they retired the numbers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Sandy Koufax, I’ve been a confirmed Dodger fan. (Okay — when the Prince of Darkness owned the team for a few years, I switched to the Red Sox, and still like them.  But that’s over with now.).

What’s a Democratic Dodger fan to do?  Texas is impossible, but….the Giants?

Answer: Yes, the Giants.  Actually, the real hatred in today’s Dodger-Giant rivalry only heads one way — south.  San Franciscans hate Los Angeles with an unreal passion: I once asked a Giant fan whom he would root for if it was the Dodgers v. Al Qaeda.  He said he just wouldn’t watch.  Angelenos, on the other hand, think of San Francisco as a pleasant enough little town, good for a romantic weekend or a place to take the kids, maybe a way to get out of the summer heat.  Not really a city, mind you, but a nice enough place.

Go Giants!

Did Public Employee Unions Cause the Collapse of the State?

Perhaps despite himself, David Brooks raises some good points about public sector sustainability in an otherwise-wretched column.

David Brooks thinks so:

New Jersey can’t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state’s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.

New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.

California can’t afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on its schools).

One of the easiest ways to be a west coast blogger is to wait until 9 pm Pacific time, look at the dumb thing that Brooks has said today, and blog it.  But here, it’s a little more complicated.

On one level, Brooks’ piece is simply moronic.   For instance: 

1)  He simply claims that California “can’t afford” various projects, conveniently ignoring the fact that the famously dysfunctional California Legislature reached an agreement on building several of these projects.  He never really costs out any of his numbers: if New Jersey workers had pitifully low pensions like private companies, would that mean that the state suddenly would have been flush with cash?  You know the answer to that one.

2)  Nowhere in his argument will you find any discussion of the anti-tax hysteria that has infected the Republican Party: Saint Ronald Reagan’s first proposal upon being elected Governor in 1966 was to raise taxes to close a deficit. 

3)  He notes that California pays more for prisons than schools, but never mentions that a crucial reason for this is the conservative obsession with three-strikes laws. 

4)  Somehow, as a taxpayer I wouldn’t feel comforted to know either that 60-year-old cops are chasing criminals on the streets, or that we can’t recruit younger cops because the work is dangerous and they don’t get a pension. 

5)  And if you are really looking to see where state costs have skyrocketed, the answer is found in the Medicaid program; yet somehow, after hemming and hawing, Brooks could not bring himself to support the Affordable Care Act, the most ambitious attempt to control health care costs in US history, and a law in which states receive a 90% match for new Medicaid expenditures.

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate this column, because progressivism does have a problem with public employee unions.  Most famously, of course, are some teachers’ unions, such as the reactionary United Teachers Los Angeles, which has devoted most its energy to resisting the advance of public school accountability.

And that’s not all.  A friend of mine worked on the transition team for then-incoming Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993.  He’s a progressive Democrat.  His brief was the city’s Department of Water and Power.  And he learned that fully 25% of the Department’s budget was devoted to pension expenses.  It is all-too-common for public employees to retire at age 50, get a full pension, and then go into consulting on the same issues in which they previously worked (obviously, this applies to people such as engineers and the like, who work at DWP), essentially drawing two salaries.

At another state agency where I worked, I learned that we could not use hybrid vehicles for the agency’s cars, because the state mechnics’ union members didn’t know how to fix them, and didn’t want to learn.  So we were stuck with cars getting far less mileage, wasting at hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, “for instance isn’t proof.”  Or to put it another way: the plural of anecdote isn’t data.  But the aging of the population means that governments stand to have huge pension debts, which means less money for programs.  These aren’t idle fears (and of course they aren’t limited to the public sector, either, as Roger Lowenstein’s excellent book shows in both public and private contexts).  As much as I’d like to say that Brooks has once again wasted some of the most precious real estate in American journalism, I can’t.  At least not yet.  It will be interesting to see how observers who actually do know the numbers respond.

Clean Ports Act — Dead on Arrival (in the Senate)

An impressive group of labor, economic development, and environmental groups is pushing to give more control to states and localities. How many Republicans will support this effort to tame the federal government? Do I have to ask?

An impressive coalition of environmental groups, labor organizations, local governments, and economic development agencies have teamed up to sponsor the Clean Ports Act of 2010, introduced on July 29th by Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York (who looks something like a cube but is an effective and conscientious legislator), and co-sponsored by 67 members of Congress.  As I read it, the Act would essentially allow state and local governments to set air quality standards for vehicles going in and out of ports — authority that a federal district judge ruled last April was pre-empted by federal law.

I just learned about this through an e-mail from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an impressive economic development organization based in this city.  Lots of folks have trumpeted the legislation: LAANE, the Sierra Club, and the Teamsters, just to name a few.  It’s not often that you can get Carl Pope and Jimmy Hoffa to write on op-ed together, but they did, strongly endorsing the Act.

Why are the Teamsters suddenly so gung-ho about environmental regulation?  The issue is two-fold: 1) whether local government such as Los Angeles can prevent non-union trucks from using its port; and 2) whether local governments can institute container fees to pay for cleaner trucks.  If local governments had this authority, then many of them would demand unionization and institute the fees.

Which is why there’s no way it passes.  The auto and trucking interests will fight this thing, it will pass the House, and get filibustered in the Senate.  You know those Republicans and Tea Partiers who love talking about local control and the Tenth Amendment?  That only happens when it’s about providing health care to people.  When it’s about the trucking industry, suddenly they start slobbering over Alexander Hamilton.

I’m somewhat skeptical that anyone is really principled about pre-emption and state control (although there are a few exceptions).  But conservatives make this argument more often: they insist that it’s not about substance, you understand, just about the federal Leviathan.  They thus claim to enforce constitutional punctiliousness (unless it’s about repealing the Fourteenth Amendment).  They’ll be hoisted on their petard here, but the inability to feel shame is a great weapon in politics, and in the absense of filibuster reform, they’ll get away with it.  Then folks (among them maybe a lot of truck drivers) will vote against the Democrats because “they didn’t get anything done.”  Ah, voters….

AJ Duffy: Los Angeles’ Most Dangerous Man

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times’ article on teacher effectiveness in Los Angeles classrooms was a real contribution to the city, not least of which it reveals the corruption of the district’s union leadership.

The Los Angeles Times might indeed be the nation’s worst newspaper, but yesterday, they did a real service for Los Angeles residents: somehow they got data out of LAUSD, comparing the relevant test scores by individual teacher before the students entered these teachers’ classes, and after.  The idea is to make comparisons of teachers based on how the students’ scores change, and to do so within a school.  Such a method, while hardly foolproof, helps isolate important aspects of teacher quality, because it helps to control for the fact that so many teachers teach in low-income neighborhoods with social pathologies.  The story found several teachers in low-income neighborhoods doing amazing work in bringing up their students’ test scores.  In fact, it found that many of the most effective classroom teachers work in the poorest neighborhoods.  As they say, read the whole thing.

The story was particularly heartening for me, not simply because of the results, but because a couple of the teachers who did not do so well in the results didn’t complain.  They didn’t dismiss the findings.  They didn’t act defensively.  Here’s one:

Told of The Times’ findings, Smith expressed mild surprise.

“Obviously what I need to do is to look at what I’m doing and take some steps to make sure something changes,” he said.

Here’s another, known as an involved, energetic and caring teacher:

Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn’t been shown such data before by anyone in the district.

“For better or worse,” she said, “testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I’m an ineffective teacher, I’d like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?”

This is exactly what you want to see.  These teachers aren’t complaining.  They aren’t making excuses.  They are dedicated, and they seem to care about their students.  Something seems not to be working, and they want to know more.

And then there is A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who reacted to yesterday’s story this way:

The Los Angeles teachers union president said Sunday he was organizing a “massive boycott” of The Times after the newspaper began publishing a series of articles that uses student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers.

“You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.

Duffy said he would urge other labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions.

This is a classic in what some have called “reactionary liberalism” — a defense of an interest group with bromides and talking points.

If progressives want to reinstitute faith in government, then we must demand the best possible results from public institutions.  And we also need to confront directly dinosaurs like Duffy who simply refuse to accept any accountability for his profession.  President Obama deserves a lot of credit for taking on the education establishment nationally, and the Times deserves a lot of credit for publishing this report.

It would be nice to have an adult conversation about precisely what these scores mean and what they do not mean, how we can help teachers who are underperforming despite their real dedication, and how to weed out those who simply cannot perform well.  And we will not have that conversation until we can get rid of people like AJ Duffy.

Classic Villaraigosan Environmental Policy

What was Antonio Villaraigosa doing with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today at the Los Angeles River? Nothing, really: only claiming credit for doing nothing.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in Los Angeles today, announcing an official EPA finding that Compton Creek, a portion of the Los Angeles River, is a “navigable water” of the United States.  This finding means that Compton Creek can receive the protection of the Clean Water Act: most prominently, it means that any attempts to fill it or otherwise degrade it must receive a Section 404 permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.  It’s an important protection: a nice backgrounder is here.

And there was Villaraigosa, standing right next to Jackson.  The Mayor certainly made sure that everyone knew he would be there.  Earlier in the day, he sent out a press advisory heralded a “major announcement” with Jackson, and blogged about it (or had a staffer blog about it) on the Huff Po.

Great — except what precisely is he going to do about it?  Why is it relevant to the policy of the City of Los Angeles?

Well, the City could fork over some restoration money — unlikely in this budgetary environment.  Or it could do some serious organizing around the project.  Or the Mayor could personally do some fundraising for it.  Or he could ensure that every member of Congress that represents the area (all of them Democrats) could know about this project and support it.  Or a whole lot of things.

What we get is this:

Working with community partners and the federal government, we can make the LA river a place where Angelenos hike, picnic, swim, and fish together.

That’s it.  No action plans, no follow-through, nothing.

I think that Villaraigosa would be happy if the Los Angeles River was restored.  But what will he do?  Cue the crickets.

UPDATE: Commenter Joe Linton, whose blog should be required reading for anyone interested in these issues, corrects me, noting accurately that EPA didn’t find that Compton Creek was navigable.  Rather, it found that the whole Los Angeles River was navigable, which means that its tributaries, of which Compton Creek is one, also get federal protection.  That’s an important point, and I appreciate Joe making it.  It doesn’t save the Mayor, though.

Mayor Villaraigosa Betrays Environmentalism Again

Once again, Los Angeles has missed a chance to pursue smart growth. And its self-styled Green Mayor is partially responsible.

A few days ago, I noted that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to talk a good game when it comes to Greening the city, but conveniently abandons plans when they become politically difficult or require anything like a normal attention span.

I was more right than I thought.  I mentioned that the Mayor had hired visionary planning director Gail Goldberg, but never supported her when she needed it.

Well, now it turns out that Goldberg has “retired” effective July 16th.  That is an enormous loss for a city that has never taken planning seriously.  Goldberg was the first planning director to do so, while articulating a compelling vision of smart growth.  And that made her a list of powerful enemies: NIMBY champion County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, homeowners association leader Jane Usher, and LA Weekly political editor Jill Stewart, who seems to combine libertarianism, NIMBYism (which is libertarianism’s opposite) and anger management problems.

The irony is that Goldberg’s smart growth vision was very bottom-up: her leading project was the review and rewriting of the City’s 35 “community plans,” which is LA-speak for the required land use element of the City’s general plan.  For the first time, the Planning Department was trying to work with neighborhood associations to put smart growth principles into these community plans.  Equally impressive in my view was her commitment to transparency: as planning director for the City of San Diego, she championed the practice of placing project mitigation funds into separate accounts, the details of which would be accessible over the web: that way, City residents would know where the funds were and most important, what they were spent on.

That sort of thing is unheard of in Los Angeles, where the City Council likes to maintain firm and opaque control over as much money as possible.  Little wonder that only Council President Eric Garcetti could have been counted on as a Goldberg ally; few other councilmembers had any interest in really visioning the City.

Goldberg’s job was made immeasurably harder by factors that cannot be laid at the foot of the Mayor.  Vicious budget cuts brought about by the recession and state government’s dysfunctionality decimated the Planning Department (although I am obliged to say that much of the City budget is still going to pensions for former city workers now acting as private consultants, and thus drawing two salaries).

But after Yaroslavsky and the homeowners’ groups started attacking her, and Robin Kramer left the Mayor’s office (she was chief of staff), it was just a matter of time before Goldberg was gone as well.  The City Controller’s office issued a study purporting to show that the department was inefficient and needlessly slow in processing permit requests, which is probably true — and cannot be blamed on Goldberg: it takes time to turn the Departmental Aircraft Carrier around, and the obstacles are probably better placed on the Building and Safety Department and the Council offices.

So it’s back to business as usual in the City of Angels.  There will be no vision for the future.  Development and homeowner interests will scream at each other.  There will be less density around transit stops, even with new sales tax money that promises more transit.  We’ll wonder: how come we can never do the wonderful things that they do in other cities?  At least Gail Goldberg will know why.

Mayor Villaraigosa, This is NOT How You Do Environmental Policy

Los Angeles City Hall looks like it’s covered in greenwash.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to talk green at every opportunity, but most of his environmental initiatives fall flat due to lack of follow-through (no one has ever accused him of too long of an attention span), his own political incentives, or both.  He pushed a charter amendment to mandate the development of solar power for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but voters rejected in when it became clear that it was a payoff for the Department’s powerful union.  He announced the Million Trees campaign for Los Angeles, but new trees have been few and far between.  He hired a visionary planning director, Gail Goldberg, but has not offered her strong public support.

And now they are repaving the street outside my house.

Why is that a big environmental issue?  Well, it isn’t, really, except for one thing: they are repaving it with blacktop.  Really black blacktop.  Blacktop that decreases surface albedo, absorbs solar radiation, and increases urban heat islands.  Just adding some chalk and lightening up the asphalt could reduce surface temperatures and thereby encourage energy conservation.  But that’s a lot less sexy than solar panels and doesn’t have any political payoff, so there’s no point in doing it.

Villaraigosa’s been Mayor for five years.  He likes to talk a lot about environmentalism.  And he can’t even get the color of the asphalt changed.  Aargh.