Thu, Jun

A Questionable Government Program …  Even to Liberals


GELFAND’S WORLD--The idea of Resilience is not inherently a bad idea.

There is even a certain nobility to the idea. At the core, it is the idea that we should prepare ourselves and our institutions so that we will be able to recover if we go through a spell of serious unemployment or if The Big One hits. In so doing, we will reduce human suffering and even poverty. Who could be against that? But then there is the official version, the government program. It espouses the idea that city government will legislate and lead so that the city's economy and its human population will be resistant to the shocks and misfortunes of life. 

One question that comes immediately to mind is this: Which is the cause and which is the effect? An example from our recent past: After WWII, much of Germany was rubble. Those who hadn't been killed or maimed were poor and hungry. At the time, a not unreasonable prediction would have been that Germany would take half a century or more to recover to its prewar economic state. But things happened incredibly faster than that, inspiring economists to develop ideas about what they began to call human capital. In other words, the ability to design and build and operate machinery, to rebuild and expand, was there in the people due to the rigorous schooling and training that many of them had taken before the war. Resilience was there already, and it wasn't something that the new government had conjured up. It was intrinsic in the culture of education and personal discipline. (Critics will point out that the U.S. provided non-human capital through the Marshall Plan, but those protestations are countered by the observation that billions of dollars in foreign aid have gone to places that simply wasted them.) 

There is a stark contrast between a war-weary, defeated people clawing their way out of the rubble and the theoretical posturing of Resilient Los Angeles. To the extent that the population of Los Angeles is technically educated, that is the result of an educational system that has been developing for more than a century. It isn't changed (or even bothered) by the existence of binders stuck on bureaucratic shelves full of lofty generalizations about the oddly named resilience. 

So why this discussion on this particular day? On Tuesday, the city's Resilience leaders hosted a gathering of the neighborhood council resilience liaisons. What's the idea of being a resilience liaison? That's another topic for another day, but suffice it to say here that the liaisons (myself included) are interested in bettering their communities, in this case by helping to provoke some level of preparedness. But in practice, that meant that 60 or 70 of us listened to canned lectures in a downtown auditorium. 

The meeting was at 6:30 in the evening, quite the stress for people who work for a living and have to fight their way through the freeway rush hour. This in itself is an indication of the attitude of the governmental leadership -- they could walk the one block from the City Hall while the rest of us added to the atmospheric CO2 burden. 

That may be a trivial complaint, but it generalizes. The attitude of the city's leadership seems to prevail at every level of analysis. What strikes me most strongly is a kind of smug attitude on the part of the presenters. Put it this way -- they don't take kindly to criticism, even when it is criticism aimed at the program rather than at themselves. 

This phenomenon continues to be best exemplified by that program called Ready Your LA Neighborhood, or RYLAN for short. I've written about it before, but for those of you who don't hang on my every word (and remember them forever), here is the nickel summary. You are urged to invite your neighbors to a get-together at your home, in which the group will exchange personal information and make plans for what to do in the event of a real disaster, one in which help from the fire department and the LAPD wont' be available because they will be overwhelmed with all the other calls. The plan also envisions one of the city's staffers coming to the meeting if you ask. 

So why am I critical of RYLAN as it continues to be imagined? It's simple arithmetic. 

Right here, I'm going to share with you (once again) the question that I've asked of the RYLAN proponents at least two or three times, and have never gotten an answer. 

How many of these meetings does Los Angeles need in order to cover the city? 

Just to make the solution easy, let's imagine (generously) that every meeting that is called gets a good response, meaning that 40 people show up, fill out the forms, and vow eternal vigilance. 

It's kind of amazing to me that none of the spokespeople was able to answer, even one who had heard the question before. 

What I'm getting at here is that if you are going to conceive of a program that is going to take time and money, and will therefore -- necessarily -- prevent other possible programs from going into existence, then shouldn't you try to think the concept through? If you were preparing the invasion of a Pacific island or Omaha Beach, you certainly would think about what might go wrong and what might not work at all. We have only so many millions of dollars of public funds and so many thousands of hours of government payroll to spread around, so shouldn't we try to make the best possible plans? 

So here is my back-of-the-envelope calculation, worthy of a sixth grader at least. 

For the 4 million people in Los Angeles, and 40 of them going to each meeting, that means that we will require 4,000,000 divided by 40 total meetings. Now even I can do that calculation. 

It comes to one-hundred-thousand such meetings to cover Los Angeles. 

Let's be generous and imagine that there will be five such meetings every day, all over the city. That translates to 20,000 days to get this thing done. In other words, if we start tomorrow and ramp up to speed instantaneously, we will still be holding these meetings 54 years from now. Maybe The Big One will wait that long. 

Even so, there is another problem with this scenario. As of the moment, there are only 4 paid city staffers who are currently qualified to go to these meetings and represent the city's emergency department. They have asked for another 4, but you know how badly such new funding requests have been received by the City Council's budget committee. Maybe we'll only be able to do 4 meetings a night. 

My problem -- you might call it my building frustration -- comes with the fact that when I ask city employees and paid non-governmental people the simple question -- have you tried to calculate how many of these meetings the city will require -- they tell me they have not. One even allowed as how she isn't a physicist or mathematician. I guess I was overly polite in refraining from responding, "Well, have you got a hand calculator or a smart phone so you can divide the number four million by the number 40?" 

We always get the same answer -- at least doing this is a start. Can you see the fallacy in this line of thinking? It's not a start if it won't work and also takes resources and manpower away from doing something useful. 

Notice that I've intentionally avoided questioning the underlying assumptions of RYLAN, which always seem to imply homogeneous populations living in single family homes in nice suburbs. Yes, the proponents talk about urban apartment buildings and the like, but absent some serious rewriting, the argument isn't persuasive. 

While attending the Resilience presentation on Tuesday, I began to wonder whether the government officials and staffers were just phoning it in, so to speak -- just going through the motions. The clue is the refusal to consider criticism seriously. 

Here's one more example. Some of the participants spoke of getting local groups together and practicing using FRS band radios (family radio service). I would be the first to agree that this is a start, but there is one unanswered question. The locals can talk to each other over FRS, but is there a plan to connect them up to higher levels so that they can ask for help when it is severely needed? This is a critical question. 

I think that there are alternatives to these Resilience Los Angeles ideas, practices and procedures that could actually work for a large urban population. I'm not now convinced that the city is willing to take the criticism and think things through logically. 

One addendum to this discussion. The Resilience Los Angeles book and its official spokespeople keep using certain terms that aren't standard English. Here are two of them: 

Blue Sky Days 

a Lens, as in "expanding initiatives to include a resilience lens . . . " 

I'm guessing that blue sky days are days that don't have a disaster, and I'm guessing that the term Lens refers to adopting a particular perspective in thinking about something. Then again, maybe my guesses are wrong. In my experience, the idiomatic meaning of Blue Sky is more along the lines of imaginary or unlikely, so perhaps the authors of Resilience Los Angeles have been saying something that is exactly the opposite of how most of us would understand it. 

It's strange that the bureaucrats who are putting out this jargon don't care that they have managed to mystify even someone as wordy as myself. When trying to communicate with the public, shouldn't one requirement be to minimize insider jargon rather than the opposite?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])



Tags: Bob Gelfand, Gelfand’s World