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On L.A. Sidewalks: A Keynesian Cautionary Tale (for Both Parties)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to overturn its policy of city-funded sidewalk repair, creating an opportunity for conservatives to present solutions that include community-based approaches.

When several Republican governors questioned whether their states should receive federal stimulus funds as part of the 2009 bill, they were derided as mean-spirited, partisan, and in the opinion of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, racist. Their reason for turning down this supposed “free money” was that much of it was never free in the first place, but restricted by a number of mandates, which bound recipients to additional and ongoing expenditures. Seemingly a world away, in Los Angeles’ City Hall, another federal stimulus tale, more than three decades in the making, is coming to a controversial conclusion. Like all good Hollywood stories, this one is fraught with irony, using the mundane (in this case, concrete) to make some prophetic points about our policies and politics.

It seemed like a good idea back during the recession in 1974. Congress allocated several million dollars in block grants and jobs stimulus funds to the City of Los Angeles, which designated the funds to the building and repairing of sidewalks. With over 10,000 miles of sidewalks in the city, there were certainly enough “shovel-ready projects” to go around.

While neighboring municipalities designated the federal monies to project-based, one-time only expenditures, the City of Angels used the dollars to expand their public works bureaucracy—especially the Bureau of Street Services.

The sidewalk story reveals policy and political points worth considering by partisans from the left and right.

Sidewalks first appeared in the city in the early 1900s, and up until the federal stimulus funds, the repairs of these concrete paths had been the responsibility of the adjacent landowner. But with millions of Uncle Sam’s dollars in hand, the city appropriated that responsibility and, consequently, liability for anyone tripping or falling on damaged sidewalks. A few years later, with both the expanded agency and services firmly entrenched, the City Council decided to continue the program even after federal funds ran out in 1978. It has been in existence ever since.

Now, in yet another dispatch from the “new normal” files, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to overturn the 36-year-old policy of city-funded sidewalk repair, returning responsibility to property owners. The city is attempting to narrow a nearly half-billion-dollar budget gap. The sidewalk repair program costs $10 million annually in construction and another $3 million to $5 million per year in legal fees defending the aforementioned cases of people falling. Still, one wonders how effective the program has been as nearly half the city’s pathways are currently deemed in need of repair at an estimated cost of over $1 billion.

In Los Angeles, as in many instances, stimulus monies were simply a bureaucratic ‘starter kit’ for creating a public-sector fiefdom.

This will be no small burden placed on Angelenos, but the loudest calls for keeping the 1974 policy are coming, ironically, from the right. With estimates putting the costs of most typical concrete repairs in the $500 to $5,000 range, Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the fiscally conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, recently complained to the California politics blog, Cal Watchdog, “We have the second-highest utility user tax in the state here at 10 percent. For that kind of money, one would think you would get something other than just the usual services.” What Vosburgh fails to note is that California cities with similarly high tax rates (like San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento) demand that their residents fix their own sidewalks. Popular Los Angeles-based libertarian radio talk show host John Kobylt has been vociferous in denouncing City Hall for paying bloated employee salaries and pensions while abdicating its sidewalk repair function. But who does he think works for the Bureau of Street Repairs—robots?

The sidewalk story reveals policy and political points worth considering by partisans from the left and right. First, it belies the Keynesian dynamic that federal stimulus spending can be easily and quickly infused (and later withdrawn) to jumpstart recessed economies, providing a transition period until private-sector spending can buttress an economy. In Los Angeles, as in many instances, stimulus monies were simply a bureaucratic “starter kit,” creating a public-sector fiefdom where there once was none, with supportive structures both inside and outside government. Adding up total expenditures for the program since its start shows that the “investment” of several million dollars back in the Disco Era devolved into a city-based project that has cost local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

The sidewalk repair program costs $10 million annually in construction and another $3 million to $5 million per year in legal fees defending the aforementioned cases of people falling.

It also highlights the perils of centralizing—even to the city level—what was once an individual responsibility. Because the city took formal authority over the sidewalks, it cannot even allow residents to repair their own. A recent Los Angeles Times story profiled area resident InJu Sturgeon, who has begged the city for 15 years to fix the cracked sidewalks in front of her house, even offering to pay half the expenses—all to no avail. Her case has not reached the top of the repair list. In the interest of efficiency, decentralizing sidewalk repair back to property owners offers the best way remedy the plague of busted walkways. Related to this is the issue of a government agency assuming a service responsibility it cannot possibly handle. Even if the bureaucracy continued to be funded at current levels, it would take almost two centuries to repair the entire backlog of sidewalk projects—and that’s assuming there is not another crack between now and then.

But the reactions of some on the right to this story also underlines a challenge to conservatives to develop (or, some would argue, return to) a positive, proactive vision for limited government —one that sees in this “new normal” of cash-strapped governments and reduced service offerings an opportunity to present solutions that include community-based approaches and public-private sector collaborations. For example, what if sidewalk repair became a “community project” that included localized civic and religious organizations working together to both raise funds and repair sidewalks themselves? The city already has the civic “infrastructure” of nearly 100 neighborhood councils to make this happen; they could be a great place from which to start.

In the interest of efficiency, decentralizing sidewalk repair back to property owners offers the best way remedy the plague of busted walkways.

While it’s always convenient to have things both ways, those on the right can’t demand smaller government and then complain when their favorite service is cut. What is happening in Los Angeles with some conservatives is a sort of a duplicitous “NIMFYism”: “Not In My Front Yard”. That great French chronicler of all things uniquely American, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1833: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.” Conservatives have rightly taken these words to found their proposals for communal responsibility in battling an encroaching government. As the story of cracked sidewalks in Los Angeles suggests, there will be many opportunities to recommend these solutions in the coming years.

Pete Peterson is the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic leadership at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

FURTHER READING: Arnold Kling discusses “When Labor Is Capital: The Limits of Keynesian Policy,” Veronique de Rugy chronicles “The Limits of Blaming Bush,” and Alex Brill says “Americans Are Good Economists.” John Makin suggests “Keys to Sustainable Recovery,” Kevin Hassett says we should “Bury Keynesian Voodoo before It Can Bury Us,” and Lawrence Lindsey answers “Did the Stimulus Stimulate?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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