If you want to get the answer to a simple math problem, enter the correct numbers in the correct places. “Solution” is a concept that is associated with a problem that has an “answer”. Most challenges to government involve trade-offs. Where mathematics requires input specificity, societal problems require a clear understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a particular path to mitigation. This requires prioritizing the deployment of resources. This requires engagement with the real world – not a world created by self-serving bureaucrats and political centers.
Politicians are most interested in projecting intentions, eg “I will end homelessness in five years” and creating the facade that something is being done. Inevitable failure leads elected officials to blame “factors beyond their control,” “changing circumstances,” or “lack of resources.” When Los Angeles County fails to provide adequate constitutionally administered mental health care in county jails, the politicians responsible for those jails blame inadequate funding for diversion strategies. When the Los Angeles City Council fails to prevent the mentally ill from dying on the streets or languishing in camps, it blames the high cost of housing in Los Angeles. Why didn’t anyone reject this political excuse? Even the United States Department of Justice continues to allow the county to defy a 2015 federal consent decree requiring adequate inmate mental health care.
The party outside power is there to provide criticism and alternative strategies when the party in power has performed inadequately. Los Angeles has no such party—no viable political alternative to the incumbents—in either city or county government. Instead, there is an unwritten rule that intra-party competition will be limited to superficial sniping and mainstream ideological criticism will be kept in check. Only when members of the ruling party are outed as racist thugs trying to carve up municipal areas the way drug cartels carve up territory does the monopoly of power shake. The recent scandal with the Municipal Council spurred the creation of a committee to draw up municipal districts in an attempt to circumvent political abuses. How telling that it took a scandal to make this count.
Just as market competition can encourage better product outcomes, so too in politics, where opposing parties are motivated to find flaws in each other’s strategies and argue for alternatives. With only one party in power in Los Angeles City and County, there is little incentive to bring new ideas to the table. Everyone is afraid of alienating a party member. As a result, the understanding is, “I won’t criticize you if you don’t criticize me.”
Let’s get serious about reducing the ever-growing number of street camps. Let’s drop the word “solution” as if the existence of mental illness and drug addiction in the street population are problems to be solved. Let’s demand competent and independent oversight that can measure the results of a particular strategy. Finally, let’s recognize that any serious effort to mitigate street encampments must have an enforcement component. The failure to reduce the camps and the crime and misery associated with it will continue until politicians take responsibility for this failure and make a major change of course. They must admit that the more than a billion dollars they and their predecessors have spent have neither reduced street encampments nor prevented their expansion. Unfortunately, in the absence of real political competition, this will not change.
Joseph Charney of South Pasadena is a former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney.