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Progressive is as Progressive Does

By Frank Gruber

David Finkel's and Robert Myers' comments to the Democratic Club on the question of how progressive Santa Monica's government has been or might become ("Transcript Part I," Feb 3) weren't quite Darkness at Noon or Animal Farm material, but Finkel and Myers were there in the early idealistic days of renters' rights and it must be sobering for some people to hear how unhappy they are in year 23 of the revolution.

Finkel and Myers argue that leftists took power in Santa Monica on the basis of a progressive agenda -- rent control -- but then, once in power, winning elections became all important, and ultimately, in Myers' words, they -- Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the Democratic Club -- elected a "bunch of technocrats" to run the city.

Myers concluded by asking the Democratic Club how it could have endorsed Richard Bloom for reelection after he had voted for an anti-homeless ordinance.

What a town. If it's not the business and property owners complaining about how bad the homeless are for business (meanwhile, it's hello Levi's, hello Circuit City), it's left-absolutists complaining that Santa Monica's soul is in danger because the City wants to regulate how homeless people are cared for.

And if you can't hear either the property owners or the lefties, it's because of the constant drone in the background about how our "sleepy beach town" is turning into a hellhole because of "massive overdevelopment."

All the complainers are wrong. Santa Monica is a better place than it was 20 years ago -- both a better place to live and a place with a government that is more democratic and more attuned to social issues.

The problem with the Finkel and Myers argument is that their view of government is excessively "moral." Yes, one may judge the morality of a society by how it treats its most disadvantaged, but society is not the same thing as government, which needs to function for the benefit of the many, not just the deprived.

To take just one example, both Finkel and Myers criticize SMRR's development of the Promenade. They may carp about the lack of community centers, or the sweatshop goods, but on any given night the Promenade is the most wide-open place in Southern California. All races and ethnic groups, all economic classes, mingle in peace -- and have fun.

Perhaps Finkel and Myers don't get outside of Santa Monica much, and they don't appreciate how extraordinary the mix on the Promenade is, but it's 180 degrees from where the rest of America went the past 50 years.

Finkel and Myers descend into silliness when they equate the progressiveness of a city with its foreign policy. Myers says that in the eighties Santa Monica was progressive, in part, because it opposed intervention in El Salvador and nuclear proliferation.

Talk about window-dressing. People who complain that Bush is distracting Americans from their economic woes by sabre-rattling in Iraq shouldn't then say that a City Council that votes down jobs and housing is progressive because it opposes war.

But Finkel and Myers are right to this extent: most of the good work in Santa Monica happened during the first ten years of left-wing rule (and the two years in the nineties when Paul Rosenstein was the swing vote on City Council).

In fact, I would agree with a lot of the Finkel/Myers critique if they would substitute the more accurate "no-growthers" for the misleadingly neutral "technocrats" in their identification of those the leftists elected to subvert their agenda. You can mark the decline of progressive politics in Santa Monica to the day in 1990 when SMRR endorsed Kelly Olsen for City Council.

After that, SMRR's most important swing constituency became people who think that traffic is not only a bigger issue than jobs and housing, but also the most important measure of civilization.

SMRR's second most important swing constituency became the police union.

Whether Santa Monica is a progressive city depends on how it responds to the challenges it faces. While "progressive" is a word that has procedural connotations -- civil liberties, for instance, or inclusiveness -- ultimately, whether a government is progressive or reactionary depends on how it deals with substantive problems.

In 1979, when various unusual market forces were conspiring to drive Santa Monicans of fixed incomes and limited means out of their apartments, it was progressive to use the regulatory powers of government to protect tenants.

Since then, whether Santa Monica has been progressive depends on how it has responded to the problems of the day -- not the problems of 20 years ago.

Between 1980 and 2000, the population of Southern California grew from approximately 12 million to approximately 17 million. The Southern California Association of Governments has projected, without controversy, that by 2025, or maybe 2030, our population will increase another six million, from 17 to 23 million.

If the current trend holds, most of this growth will come from what's called "natural increase," the surplus of births over deaths, not immigration. (The 1990's were the first decade since the arrival of the Spanish that most of the region's population growth was "natural.")

What this means is that most of these six million will be our children and their children. We can't stop them from coming by not building them homes and schools, or by not investing in creating them jobs -- they will already be here.

Dealing with this 35 percent population increase will be the great local issue of our time. Will we continue to sprawl, and perpetuate all the problems -- yes, including traffic -- that we complain about? Will each city look after its own short-sighted interests, or will cities think, and act, regionally?

Whether we are progressive or reactionary will depend on how we respond to these questions.

So far, Santa Monica's response to these big problems has been reactionary. Population declined in Santa Monica from 1980 to 2000 -- in fact, Santa Monica was the only city of significant size in the region to lose population.

While it was progressive to regulate rents in 1979, it was not progressive to obstruct the building of new apartments after that, and we won't solve the problems of poverty by pumping up our police force.

At the core of progressive politics is the willingness to use government to solve problems, but progressives must realize that taking that step is only the beginning. We must be constantly reexamining our premises. We must be thinking ahead.

Speaking as someone who believes that we need government to solve big problems, to counter balance private interests and to preserve fairness, I need to remind myself over and over that arguably our worst environmental catastrophe of the 20th century, the damming and channeling of American rivers, and certainly the worst social catastrophe, the destruction of our cities and the building of segregated suburbs, originated in well-intentioned federal programs -- the Bureau of Reclamation, flood control, hydro-power, urban renewal, interstate highways and the F.H.A.

The self-denominated progressive leadership of Santa Monica won't be progressive until it allows its own thinking to progress.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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