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From Heroes to Zeroes: Beyond the War on Math

ALPERN AT LARGE - Although CityWatch showcases many articles raising concerns about our public servants—and the recurrent theme that any analysis of the pension/budget/tax math shows our city, county, state and nation has yet to confront the painful decisions needed for a sustainable public sector—the fact remains that heroes abound in our public sector, and they enhance our daily lives in ways that aren’t always appreciated until they’re gone.
Heroes like the late Frank Edward Ray, the Chowchilla bus driver who saved and led 26 children to freedom after being buried alive by hijackers.   Or the Metro bus driver, Alan Thomas, who was just shot and killed in West Hollywood while driving his normal route.  

Other heroes that don’t always get enough credit include the LAPD SWAT officers who apprehended the suspects in the slayings of two USC graduate students from China.

Or the first-rate teachers at my son’s fifth-grade classes at Overland Avenue Elementary School.  

Or the first-rate staff members of Council Districts 11 and 5, with whom I work on a regular basis on planning and transportation issues that affect the entire Westside.  

Or the Metro, Expo, LADOT and Caltrans officials who go out of their way to inform and update us on local and regional transportation projects.

And so on, and so on.  Just growing up as the son of a LA City civil engineer in the Department of Sanitation/Refuge taught me first-hand of the inherently-selfless mindset of the majority of public servants who provide us needed services in our daily lives.

It therefore behooves us CityWatch writers, as it behooves the rest of us, to refocus our critiques of the public sector towards the Math that is drowning us all, and that threatens the economic future of both current and future generations.  Our critiques should focus on the attitude of those within government who ignore—or even declare war—on that Math that underlines the unsustainability of how we’re budgeting our essential government services.

Regardless of whether we believe Governor Brown is doing enough to limit-set the public sector unions (particularly teachers and prison guard unions) who are especially guilty of that aforementioned War on Math, he still has done considerably more than his gubernatorial predecessors (Republican or Democratic) towards pension/benefit reform in our state government.

And while Republican zeroes such as state Senator Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) cross the line in her repeated calls for a $74,000 claim her husband had against the state other Republicans have chosen to remain independent and open to the idea of working with Governor Brown—even if it means raising taxes.

Which is not to say that either Republican or Democratic legislators in Sacramento, or their counterparts in LA City or County, should be too quick to raise taxes in an environment where many—if not most—voters are just NOT ready to raise taxes yet.  And despite the claims of the usual media suspects like the LA Times, it’s not as simple as “voters are selfish and want services but no taxes to pay for them.”

It’s really just a simple matter of taxpaying voters (most of whom exist in the real world of the private sector, and which is the overwhelming majority of our economy) knowing our current Mathematical Realities, and expecting the public sector to follow suit after years of widespread taxpayer imploring the public sector to engage in reform of our budgetary structural deficit.

Mathematical Realities such as the enormous and crushing student debt loans that thwart the efforts of hardworking college students to create a successful career for themselves after years of playing by the rules and which threaten the futures of their own children.

Mathematical Realities such as our “lower unemployment rates” that appear lower solely because too many have given up looking for jobs, and which for some reason are not included in the official unemployment rate. In other words, anyone who’s suggesting things are getting better for jobseekers is either lying or just confused.

The true unemployment/underemployment rate is pathetic, and has been since virtually the beginning of the twenty-first century, and which has occurred on the watch of both liberals and conservatives, and of both Democratic and Republican political leaders.  There are probably about 20-25% of us who are either unemployed, have jobs that don’t meet our financial and/or career needs, or have jobs that abuse us but keep us trapped because we’ve no other place to go.

And from that widespread misery—all during an annual federal deficit of approximately $1 trillion—derives what should be an obvious need for all levels of government to enact hiring freezes, pay cuts or combining jobs to maintain individual salaries, a delayed retirement age to receive full pension benefits, and the need to replace public sector union leaders with individuals who can smell the coffee and not force public sector layoffs because of union rigidity in its negotiations.

The wickedly-painful pay and work cutbacks are occurring, and are not about to stop occurring, in the private sector—who are about to vote on more tax hikes.  Austerity alone is not the answer to our economic problems, but previous government-supported growth initiatives have been misspent and the political/grassroots will to engage in more initiatives is sadly lagging.

The War on Math by those who ignore or fight that math must end.  We must do the right thing by our public sector heroes, by the private sector taxpayers who are suffering endlessly (and who pay for the public sector), and by our children who stand to inherent the mess we either choose to resolve or ignore.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

Tags: Ken Alpern, CityWatch, public servants