If you want to get the answer to a simple math problem, inject the right numbers in the right places. “Solving” is a notion that is associated with a problem that has “an answer.” Most challenges of government involve tradeoffs. Where math requires specificity of inputs, societal problems require a clear understanding of the pros and cons of pursuing a specific path to mitigation. It requires prioritizing the deployment of resources. It requires engagement with the real world — not a world created by self-serving bureaucrats and political spin doctors.
Politicians care most about projecting intentions, e.g., “I will end homelessness in five years,” and creating the facade of doing something. Inevitable failure causes the elected officials to place the blame on “factors not in their control,” “changing circumstances” or a “lack of resources.” When Los Angeles County fails to provide adequate constitutionally administered mental healthcare in county jails, politicians responsible for those jails blame the inadequate funding of diversion strategies. When the L.A. City Council fails to prevent the mentally ill from dying on the streets or languishing in encampments, it blames L.A.’s high cost of housing. Why hasn’t anyone pushed back on this political excuse-making? Even the United States Department of Justice continues to allow the county to defy a 2015 federal consent decree requiring adequate mental health inmate care.
The party out of power is there to provide a critique and alternative strategies when the party in power has inadequately performed. In Los Angeles, there is no such party — no viable political alternative to those in office — neither in city nor county government. Instead, there is an unwritten rule that intra-party competition will be limited to superficial sniping and major ideological criticism will be kept in check. Only when members of the ruling party are outed as racist gangsters attempting to carve up council district lines like drug cartels divide territory is the power monopoly shaken. The recent City Council scandal has incentivized the creation of a commission to draw up council districts in an attempt to bypass political malfeasance. How telling that a scandal was needed to consider this.
Just as competition in the market can promote better product outcomes, so it is in the case of politics where opposing parties are motivated to find fault with each other’s strategies and argue for alternative ones. With only one party in power in the city and county of Los Angeles, there is little incentive to bring new ideas to the table. Everyone is afraid of alienating a fellow party office holder. As a result, the understanding is, “I won’t criticize you, if you don’t criticize me.”
Let’s seriously address the goal of reducing ever-growing street encampments. Let’s abandon the word “solution,” as if the existence of mental illness and drug addiction in the street- dwelling populations are problems to be solved. Let’s require competent and independent oversight that can measure a particular strategy’s results. And finally, let’s acknowledge that any serious effort to mitigate street encampments must have an enforcement component. The failure to reduce encampments, and the crime and misery associated with it, will continue until politicians take responsibility for that failure and make a serious course change. They must acknowledge that the more than a billion dollars they and their predecessors have spent has neither reduced street encampments nor prevented their expansion. Tragically, in the absence of real political competition, this will not change.
Joseph Charney of South Pasadena is a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.
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