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A Democratic Tea Party?

By Frank Gruber

January 17, 2012 -- The political tsunami triggered by the State of California’s seismic abandonment of redevelopment is ripping through local governments.

Los Angeles is dropping its huge and once powerful redevelopment agency, with its massive obligations and nearly 200 employees. Smaller and financially stronger Santa Monica, where the City Council, not a separate board, oversaw redevelopment, and where redevelopment funds? contributed to salaries of employees scattered throughout City Hall, is struggling to see what it can save of both the capital program and the employees.

My advice to the staff of Santa Monica’s Finance Department, wondering how to fix it all, and to the discouraged planners of the projects the City wanted to use the money for, is to reflect on one thing: what if there had been no earthquake in 1994?

No earthquake equals no redevelopment, and we would have had to figure out how to pay for all the good things with our own money. I’m not happy that the City has been hit this way, since Santa Monica ran a clean program that built public facilities when private developer boondoggles characterized redevelopment around the state, but when you get down to it, it’s a losing game to argue with reality.

There’s a bigger lesson about redevelopment that I hope the Democratic Party in California and around the country learns: which is that government is not always good and that Democrats should stop playing the sap for government.

I’ll put it this way: I hope Jerry Brown addresses the Democratic convention next summer about how he terminated redevelopment in California.

In the article the Los Angeles Times ran Dec. 30 (,0,7617164.story) after the Supreme Court put its seal of approval on the end of redevelopment the Times quoted a politician as follows: “Redevelopment has become a cash cow for developers, NFL team owners and big box stores who have been on the public dole for a long, long time, subsidized by these redevelopment funds."

Okay, so who said that? Must be someone associated with the Occupy movement, right?

Well, no. Those were the words of Chris Norby, a Republican member of the Assembly from Fullerton. Question: if you’re a Democrat, don’t you wish that quote came from one of your politicians?

Don’t get me wrong; some Democrats, such as County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (whom The Times quoted as saying that redevelopment “evolved into a honey pot that was tapped to underwrite billions of dollars worth of commercial and other for-profit projects.") got it, and of course Gov. Brown is a Democrat, and he killed redevelopment with Democratic votes in the state legislature, but let’s face it, whether a politician supported or opposed redevelopment had nothing to do with ideas about good government and everything to do with the politician’s own budget, or (for Republicans) what business interests they were close to or (for Democrats) what labor unions they were close to.

The bigger problem for Democrats derives from their well-justified love for the Golden Age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when the party did use government for great purposes and to great effect. Democrats, channeling the New Deal, or even the Great Society, believe in collective action, and they’re hesitant to say what’s obvious: that government is easily manipulated by private interests and even without such “help,” government can do a poor job on its own of serving the public good.

When politicians, regardless what party they’re in, get caught in inevitable scandals, Democrats are hurt more than Republicans because it’s only Democrats who are defending government as a general concept; Democrats worship FDR, Republicans worship Ronald Reagan.

Democrats should show a little outrage about government, and it should be easy for them to do so because much government spending is for the benefit of and controlled by private businesses. Consider nearly the whole of the farm program; why don’t Democrats attack corporate agricultural subsidies with the enthusiasm that Republicans use against Social Security?

Okay, I know what you’re saying, subsidizing businesses is not a problem with government, but rather a problem with businesses and their lobbyists. But leaving aside that there’s never going to be anything pure about a human endeavor like government, just consider how often government programs, begun with the best of intentions, have gone wrong.

Think about urban renewal, which destroyed more of cities than it built; the decades the Bureau of Reclamation spent damming rivers that shouldn’t have been dammed; all those freeways the government rammed through cities; the many failures of public housing and the racism of federal mortgage programs that mandated red-lining. The list goes on. At best, many of these programs have been failures; at worst they’ve been disasters.

These failures don’t diminish the great governmental successes, such as Social Security and Medicare, which took so many old people out of poverty, or the great infrastructure programs from the canals of the early republic, to the transcontinental railroads, to the great projects of the New Deal, or government-funded scientific research, or great regulatory successes such as those that cleaned our air and water, or made medicines safe.

The failures don’t mean that universal public education has not been the most important force in making this a great -- yes, exceptional -- country.

And the failures don’t mean that government programs can’t be improved -- affordable housing programs today create better housing than those of 50 years ago. Or that government can’t be bold -- such as the enactment, finally, of a federal healthcare plan, or President Obama’s taking over General Motors and Chrysler to save the automobile industry.

But consider this: it was Republican presidents, regardless of their motives, who shut down urban renewal. And as recounted in Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert, it was Reagan who finally pulled the plug on the Bureau of Reclamation.

I know that there were and are Democrats who were and are critical of bad programs, but how did it happen that Democrats let themselves be identified as the party that defended them?

If Democrats are more critical of government, then their defense of its good programs will be more effective. If you’re not going to attack government for its mistakes, you’re going to find yourself on the defensive when it comes to its successes.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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