Confessions of a Pothole Politician (Ep. 252)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Confessions of a Pothole Politician.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, has big ambitions but knows he must first master the small stuff. He’s also a polymath who relies heavily on data and new technologies. Could this be what modern politics is supposed to look like?
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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Today we’re speaking with the mayor of …
ERIC GARCETTI: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciuncula, which has luckily been shortened to Los Angeles.
MUSIC: Greg Ruby, “California Poppies” (from Washington Hall Stomp)
GARCETTI: I’m Eric Garcetti. I’m the mayor of the city of Los Angeles.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Tell me something I don’t know about Los Angeles. So, everyone in the world is at least a little familiar with L.A., or at least an image of L.A. but tell me something only a true insider or a real long-timer would know.
GARCETTI: Los Angeles was founded before Washington, D.C. People think we’re a new city, but when the Continental Congress was commissioning a study to see whether marshland next to the Potomac would be a fitting place for our national capital, that’s the same year, 1781, that L.A. was founded. And it was a place that was — at least the padres of the nearby mission in San Gabriel — said, “a rowdy, chaotic criminal place.” It got washed away by floods twice, and had to be resettled on higher ground. And the third time, it caught on.
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MUSIC: Danny Massure, “No Saint” (from No Saint)
After those two early washouts, Los Angeles did catch on — to the point that it became the second-largest city in America. A city that people the world over dream about; a city which, in turn, manufactures and exports dreams for a living; a city that seems to exist beyond the ho-hum gravitational pull of the rest of America — unless you’re its mayor, in which case your concerns are very down-to earth.
DUBNER: Tell me maybe in 60 seconds or less, what you actually do in a given day assuming there is anything like a “given day.”
GARCETTI: Every day is predictably unpredictable. I’ll wake up and see emails from the night before of shootings or even homicides in the city. I’ll take my daughter to school, try to get some exercise in there before that, and then really do a combination of proactively engaging with people and responding to what’s going on in the city. So I’ll do everything in the same day from drive from one end of town to the other, go under a freeway overpass, go into people’s tents who are living on the street to talk to them, try to get them off the street to meeting with a visiting ambassador or head of state and everything in between.
Garcetti was on the L.A. City Council for years before becoming mayor in 2013, at just 42 years old — the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century. He inherited a projected budget deficit of some $240 million; he’d also get to deal with a water shortage, rising crime rates, and an incessant need for more or better ways to move people around a city that is famous for its traffic.
Garcetti studied political science, urban planning, and international affairs at Columbia, in New York; then politics at Oxford and “nationalism and ethnicity” at the London School of Economics. So it would seem obvious that a political career was always the goal.
GARCETTI: Well, I didn’t think of electoral politics to be honest. I thought I’d do human-rights work and international development work. I’d spent time in high school in Ethiopia between the famines on a medical relief mission. I had spent time in Burma in the liberated areas, where rebels and pro-democracy dissidents fled after the crackdown on Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in the late 80s, early 90s. So, I thought it would be maybe something involved in world change, but not necessarily electoral politics. Or, it was going to be music. I am a passionate, committed composer, and the guy I used to write musicals with, once he was able to ditch me and get a better composer actually won the Tony.
DUBNER: That’s Brian Yorkey, is that right?
DUBNER: You are apparently very good at a lot of things. Photography, and dancing, and sharp-shooting, and acting, and composing and playing music. You did very well in academia; you were a Rhodes scholar, among other things. So, first of all, were all these extracurricular activities just part of a grand plan to make yourself an electable politician?
GARCETTI: No. But I’m sure my parents’ breeding was, because if you have an Italian last name, you’re half-Mexican and half-Jewish, and you can’t get elected on that, who can? But, no, I’ve just always been fascinated by interesting and different things. On my mom’s side, the Jewish side of the family, I come from a family of musicians who are pianists, so I’ve always loved cultural expression. And my dad’s a retired politician and lawyer and now photographer, so, I kind of caught that bug from him. And I’ve just always loved engaging with ideas and culture, and I think that’s part of growing up in L.A., where you literally have a community from every culture on the face of the earth, every language and this kind of geographic crossroads of the world: northern capital of Latin America, western capital of the United States, eastern capital of the Pacific rim. So, it was a natural outgrowth of where I grew up and who raised me.
MUSIC: Zox, “Towards Los Angeles” (from Line In The Sand)
Eric Garcetti’s father – the “retired politician and lawyer” – is Gil Garcetti, who served two terms as Los Angeles County District Attorney in the 1990’s. As Gil Garcetti was first running for the position, there were widespread and brutal riots in L.A., in protest over the Rodney King trial. He was the black man who’d been beaten by four L.A. cops.
ABC NEWS CUT: “The majority in the Rodney King case has declared its verdict and not one of the four police officers seen on video tape beating Mr. King a year ago is guilty of using excessive force. They’ve all been found not guilty.”
DUBNER: More than 50 people were killed, couple thousand injured. What was it like for you as a student in New York, with your family from L.A., your father heading toward the D.A. position there, what was it like to watch that happening back home? And I’m curious, if or how it affected your future?
GARCETTI: It was very otherworldly. I had just left the city the day before and flown back to school, so I missed it by one day. My senior dorm, I remember sitting there, literally seeing my city burn and just feeling powerless and feeling hopeless, and wondering whether the great diversity that I loved of our city would be something that would ultimately be the cause of its destruction. Because you remember all the rioting then as like nobody will ever get along, and the race relations are so fraught with peril in Los Angeles. What’s miraculous to me is almost 30 years later, 25 years later, you see this is our great strength. I travel to other cities and have my fellow mayors, like the mayor of Seoul saying, “how do we get to be more like L.A., with the sort of pluralism that you have cause we need that here if we’re going to survive and be competitive.” So, I think from a very dark moment, we’ve really figured out a way to get back to the light and to see what has always been a strength of this city that unmatched cultural diversity that defines L.A.
DUBNER: Before the King verdict and the riots, there was of course the King beating and the acquittal then of the police officers. How did that affect your view of police work generally and specifically in L.A.?
GARCETTI: Well, a couple things have informed that over time. I have tremendous respect for people who have decided to wear a badge and put their lives on the line for us. I’ve been with their widows; I’ve held their children, those who are killed in the line of duty, and I think we have to always recognize that and thank our police officers. I also am the son of a former prosecutor who stood up the first — one of the first divisions, if not the first division in the United States in a district attorney’s office to go after public officials, including police officers who were accused of wrongdoing, including police brutality. And at the time, that was a very different Los Angeles Police Department. It was much more inward looking, and he would go and brief, at roll calls, police officers and tell them, “look, if you shoot somebody, and it’s a potentially criminal act, we’re going to roll out and we’re going to potentially prosecute you.” And police officers would say things, like — he’d come home and over the dinner table say, “a cop told me, in one of those roll calls, that if you were lying on the streets, bleeding and dying, I’d step over you and keep walking.” So, I grew up with an understanding that justice wasn’t just about suspects who don’t wear badges, but occasionally you have people who exhibit criminal behavior in the police department. Cut ahead 30 years, and now as mayor of the city, one of the first things that I did before Ferguson, before Staten Island, before these places, was to become the first big city to begin testing and roll out the deployment of body cameras. And thinking about that Rodney King moment when we all saw that, that was really one of the first moments video tape caught what we knew happened all too often and too many places. From a very small minority of police officers who tainted the badge for everybody, but now we have police officers who actually have not only said, “OK, I’ll wear a body camera.” But I’ve talked to ones who say, “I love having this. It makes me safer, and it makes us more accountable to the public that builds trust” and I’m really proud that that many years after Rodney King, that’s where Los Angeles is at.
DUBNER: Now, if I understand correctly, in your effort to build what you’re calling “relationship-based policing” and pushing for, as you said, putting cameras on every police officer on the street, there’s one incident recently — L.A. has not been immune to controversial police shootings, and in one of them police shot and killed a 29-year-old homeless man named Brendon Glenn. As I understand it, the L.A. Police Commission declared the shooting unjustified, but you’ve resisted calls to release video of the shooting captured by surveillance cameras and, I gather, police body cameras. Why is that?
GARCETTI: I think that footage should be released, but, I guess, as a son of a prosecutor, we should allow that to be with prosecutors to build their case first. In this case, it’s actually private video footage, so it’s not even something that was from a body camera. I think it was from a nearby business. But you want, I think, to have as effective a prosecution, and I agree with what the Police Commission has said and what the chief has said. This is a very disturbing shooting. It’s one that will go to trial. And I think that we should preserve that judicial system and then release it at the appropriate time. We’re also listening to people and building together, with civil-rights advocates, the police union, general public. But I think it’s the most important to send the message that if somebody does break the law, even if they’re wearing a badge, that we get a conviction.
MUSIC: Human Factor, “Air Castle California”
The other case that marked Garcetti’s father’s career as District Attorney was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Again, as in the Rodney King case, there was an acquittal. But this time, it was the defendant who was black, and he wasn’t a cop. Simpson, a former football star, was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Gil Garcetti’s office oversaw the trial – and for the past 21 years, refrained from speaking publicly about it. When asked to participate in the recent ESPN documentary series called O.J.: Made in America, Garcetti declined at first, but then he was persuaded:
GIL GARCETTI: It was my son who said, “Dad, it’s time for you to speak. No one knows the facts that you know.”
GARCETTI: The verdict was one he disagreed with very strongly. But he also saw it as a moment in time, and I think we’ve just kind of come to accept that we’ve turned the page on awareness of domestic violence, that he saw this as the outgrowth, not just it was a random murder from nowhere, but the outgrowth of domestic violence situation in that household. And that Nicole was a victim that perhaps hadn’t spoken up in the face of domestic violence. And he was the first elected D.A. to as vociferously speak out about that and really make that the cause of his time in office, which I’m very proud of. I mean, even though the verdict didn’t come in the way that he wanted, and that many people believe it should have, I think there’s a lot of women who came to him and said, “I finally have the courage to speak up and to speak out,” and I think lives were saved. But I was studying most of the time overseas when that happened. I came back a couple times, and it was a media circus unlike anything I had ever seen before. I got to hear some kind of behind the scenes ins and outs of what was going on from my dad, but I know that he really believed strongly that this was a moment to raise awareness while also trying to get the guilty verdict, that unfortunately didn’t come.
DUBNER: How did he explain the verdict that came in that was contra to his expectation and his belief? Why did he think that verdict happened?
GARCETTI: I don’t know if he ever had a set reason. I think he’s an experienced enough prosecutor to know that juries are groups of human beings and you can never 100 percent predict what they will do. Obviously, race played some into it; some tactical mistakes that were made along the way. I talked with him recently, I think one of the lawyers of O.J. Simpson said something like he was taking medicine for his arthritis and was told that if you stop taking it your joints and your fingers will swell and that happened before putting on the glove. There’s all sorts of what-ifs and Monday-morning quarterbacking. I think he thought it was a mixture of what was going on with the racial politics and sending a message from this jury, as well as some things that made it a difficult case to prove. But in the end, I think it was something that people felt very strongly about on both sides and my dad believed he was guilty and still does today.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about crime for a moment. Crime in L.A. is still way, way lower than historic highs, but it has been rising. To what do you attribute the rise and what are you doing about it?
GARCETTI: Well, you’re right. In the 1860s the murder rate was 100x higher than New York. And if we had that same murder rate today, we’d have as many people killed in a week as we do in a year. We have crime levels that are about the equivalent of the 1950s, the mid-1950s. So it’s still very safe city relative to the past, but as I always say, that means nothing if there were gunshots in your neighborhood last night or you were the victim of a crime. And we’ve seen some double digit — low double digit increases in violent crime for two years. I attribute it to a couple different things. One is I think in California we’ve done a lot of well-intentioned criminal justice reforms, many of which I support, that have taken people out of prison and put them back in our communities taking the savings to put into job training, rehabilitation, etc. But we changed those laws before the programs were in place, so it was a little bit the cart before the horse. We should have had that safety net to catch them, and I am sure that a part of our homelessness rise as well is linked to this. People get out of jail, that first week is so important, they don’t have the job skills if they’ve just been in a jail that did nothing to rehabilitate them — what do they go back to? The streets or back to crime. And we’ve seen a spike in particular property crime around auto related crime, which means people break into cars to feed, probably, the addictions they have on the streets when the come out of the criminal justice system. So, I think that’s one of the big drivers. I think the other one, too, is that we’re seeing a change in how the main driver of crime in L.A. is still gangs. We’ve cut gang crime by more than half in the last decade. But gangs are kind of — a new generation are coming up, and it’s no longer graffiti on a wall that’s been crossed out with somebody else’s paint. We’re seeing it play out on social media in a way that we’re having to build up a law enforcement response to, to be able to monitor that and quickly go after things before they spike. And we’re seeing some promise with that. Just this year, we’ve stood up in south Los Angeles, a community safety operation center. It’s open about 18 hours a day, and has social media people who are following social media. It’s looking at who are the few people who carry the guns and are the shooters and trying to get them, as New York City has been doing in the last year, quite effectively. And we’re seeing the crime rise in those areas begin to level off and even come down in the last few months.
DUBNER: I saw that you recently held a gun buyback, which we wrote a little bit about that in Freakonomics years ago. The evidence from gun buybacks suggests that they’re great for show, but that’s it. That no one who would ever use a gun in a crime is actually going to turn it in in a buyback. In fact, in the Instagram picture that you posted, Mr. Mayor, I see a bunch of old wooden barreled rifles that people turned in, which are not — not the street crime guns. So I’m curious, what’s the scope of your gun plan, and please tell me it’s not entirely based on buybacks?
GARCETTI: No definitely is not. And I think that buybacks — there’s a lot of academic work on it and some of it quite dated now — but it’s not just about ones that would be used in crimes. There was one woman who brought in a bunch of guns from her father who had dementia and was threatening to use the guns against other people and himself. And whether it’s suicides or accidents, I am convinced for sure that there are some guns we have taken off the streets that would have been used in some death of some sort. And even if it’s one, it’s worth it. So it’s not just the show, it’s also the education around that. We’ve done other things, now. We’ve passed some pretty first-in-the-nation laws that there’s a mandate to keep your guns locked when you have them at home. We have banned the possession of large magazines, large-capacity magazines for ammunition. We’ve looked at public housing and gone after people to be able to kick them out of housing if they have illegal guns. And we’ve been trying to stand up going after those illegal guns that are on our the streets, working very closely with the ATF to make sure that we can trace back guns and go to the bad apple gun dealers. There’s really a few gun dealers around the country that you can trace a lot of the guns back to that are used in crimes. And we also have something else quite effective, from at least an economics or human behavior perspective: written letters to people who buy guns inside the city saying that if you’re buying this gun for somebody else, that’s illegal. And since we have a waiting period here, when we’ve used those letters, we’ve seen as high as 40 percent of those people not come back to pick up the guns that they already paid for. So straw buyers, which are the ways that criminals and other people are getting a lot of their guns — we’ve been able to keep those out of their hands.
MUSIC: Michael Tiernan, “Easy” (from L.A. Can Wait)
Garcetti has been called a “pothole politician” for his embrace of all kinds of unsexy projects like repaving streets, decreasing garbage, conserving water and energy, lowering response time for emergency services. All of which had to be accomplished, remember, with a large budget deficit.
DUBNER: Let’s go back to the beginning of your mayoralty, which is just a few years ago. What did you decided to do about that deficit? And what goals did you set generally for your administration?
GARCETTI: Well, I set a very straightforward goal of getting back to the basics, which is I think what municipal government’s about. People will give you the responsibility, even the authority, to go after the big things, the visionary things, the reaching for incredible opportunities, if they trust that you’re running a city well. And if you don’t run a city well, conversely, you can’t do the big things. So first and foremost, it was balancing that budget, which we’ve done three years in a row. Our bond rating has gone up. It’s putting a reserve fund of record high, squirreled that away to make sure the next time a recession comes that we’re in a better place. And then it’s just investing in the infrastructure. We stopped trimming trees; we weren’t fixing sidewalks; we weren’t paving streets to level. And we had records of all of those now, in just two and a half years. At the same time, we’re doing huge infrastructure things, and I think my three goals were to rebuild our economy and prepare us for the next 25 years of prosperity; build our infrastructure out in a country where it’s crumbling and be ready for the next 50 years of our physical needs here; and then third was to build trust back into city government. So with the economy, we’ve seen unemployment cut in half. I’ve focused on key industries, like technology. L.A. now has more tech jobs than any county in America. We’re the trade capital of America, record tourism, looking at all sorts of green jobs as well, where we’ve become kind of the world capital of that. On infrastructure, we’re building more than any other city in the U.S. as well, from $15 billion dollars at our airport to five rail lines under construction, two of which we just opened up in the last two months. So, the infrastructure piece is really important as we see the nation unable to do that from Washington, we’re doing that ourselves. And then the last piece of just trusting government; I want people to be excited about government. And that starts by getting [a] call returned and not being on hold for 40 minutes. Getting the stop sign up that you need, the speed bumps that slow the traffic down on your street where your kids play. Then people will give you the permission to do things as we’ve done like raise the minimum wage, go after affordable housing and try to crack the back of homelessness here in our city, where we’re the homeless capital of America. So those three themes have allowed us to really now tackle now what I think are the two biggest problems we face: homelessness and traffic, both of which we’re unfortunately well known for.
DUBNER: In terms of traffic, if there’s one American city that would seem immune to a European-style make over of its transportation, emphasizing rail and foot traffic rather than car traffic, it would seem, at least to me, to be L.A., because of it’s size and its historic reliance on the automobile. But I gather that you definitely don’t share that view. I know that you’re pushing for lots of walk-able areas and lots of train travel. Can you talk about — obviously, L.A. will never be a small, compact European city — but what is your ultimate vision for that?
GARCETTI: I don’t want to bring a European city or an east coast city to the west coast. We’re proud of the amazing weather, topography and the geography that we have. And it’s a little bit of back to the future, because even across these long distances, we had the best public transportation system arguably of a city of our size in the country until the 1950s. You know, the way autonomous vehicles are the next big thing; these things called cars and freeways were the next big thing. We got rid of an incredible red car system, which was a streetcar system, that traveled the distances we’re now rebuilding. L.A. is a very much of a postmodern city. A traditional city has one center, it’s bounded and it’s vertical. We will always be, relative to other cities, much more horizontal; we’re unbounded and we have many centers. And to me, that’s exciting. It’s more kind of the way London grew up — a collection of villages. I think you need to build up transit options that get people from one village to the next and make the village a little bit more self-contained.
MUSIC: Martin Sebastian Holm, “California Trippin’” (from Album Title)
DUBNER: As I understand it, and please correct me if I’m wrong, the mayor of L.A. is somewhat constrained by the fact that you share administrative responsibilities with L.A. county and you don’t have that much control over, say, education, which is largely overseen by the state. Can you talk just for a minute about the power of your office or leverage, whatever you want to use, relative to say, to the mayor of another big city like New York City or Chicago?
GARCETTI: Well, it is a strong mayor system here; it’s very analogous to federal government. I write the budget. Like congress, our city council can change that. I have veto power; they can override that. I appoint all of the 37 general managers and chiefs who oversee things that some other cities don’t have. For instance, what’s the largest municipal utility — our department of water and power — in the country? New York doesn’t own that; Chicago doesn’t own that. We have our own airport — that’s not done via port authority — and the port of L.A. which is the biggest port in America, together with Long Beach, responsible for 43 percent of the goods that come in are under my control. But it’s true that a lot of the health and human services and education pieces are in separate governments. And L.A. is — people have always said L.A. is a liberal place. I always point out that it was kind of built as a libertarian place. How else could you explain that in a county of Los Angeles, which is 10 million people, in a metro area of 17 million, just in that county alone, we have 88 cities? So I’m just one mayor of 88. Now, it’s the biggest city by far, but one of the ways I’ve exercised power to transcend that is every quarter I bring together the other 87 mayors with me, and we talk about things that ignore our borders: crime or traffic or air quality. It doesn’t stop between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles or between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. You have to solve those things together. But the other way that I think you can influence — you know, the county of Los Angeles has all the hospitals, has all the general relief money, has the child welfare policies. So if you go after something like homelessness, really the mental health needs and the human services needs are something from the county. And people, for too long, have had a rivalry out here. The city hated the county. The county hated the city. Mayors don’t get along with supervisors, vice versa. And I’ve just spent a lot of time building those relationships to a place where I think even though those formal boundaries are up, we can make a huge influence on education. For instance, we just announced we’ll be the biggest city in America to enact America’s promise to make community college free. And this graduating class of this next year of our Los Angeles Unified School District will get community college free if they graduate and that’s something I launched together with them. So, you’re right, I’m somewhat constrained, but only as constrained as your imagination and your relationships take you.
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Wolfram Gruss, “Broken Piano” (from Wolfram Gruss)
L.A. may have a lot of natural attributes, but water is not one of them.
DUBNER: L.A. has to buy a lot of its water and with a long and severe drought in California, that water’s gotten more expensive. So, what have you been doing about that?
GARCETTI: A lot of stuff. Water built this city. Anybody who’s seen Chinatown knows the history. One of the first things I did was actually, after a 100-year war, make peace with the folks whose water we were stealing in Chinatown up in Inyo County, to be able to have them retain more of the water and have us retain more of the water because we were wasting a lot of it to try to keep dust from blowing on an old lake bed up in Inyo County. Second, when we heard about the drought, I pointed out that Angelinos have been amazing. We consume the same amount of water today as we did 30 years ago, with a million more people. So, we went from three to four million people and collectively we consume actually a little bit less water than we did then. And so I said, “we’ve done this in the past; we’re able to do this. We waste so much water. How many lawns do we have?” which is 50 percent of our water use is our landscaping. “And how many people are on those lawns?” I said, “if you have a lawn and you’re using it, great. Keep it, and pay for the water to water it. But if you’re not, let us pay you to switch that out to beautiful flowering, green plants that use a lot less water.” And we’re able to do that with over 50 million square feet of lawn just in the last couple years. We reduced our water in the face of this drought — our water usage by 19 percent — without having to fine anybody, without having to crack down with the water police, but by inspiring people through public education and rebates, giving them free cisterns, changing out their toilets, all those sorts of things. And the quality of life is still great. So I look at this as a great opportunity for us to reduce our water bills, our water dependency. And in long-term, I put forward a plan for us to move from only 15 percent of our water actually comes from underneath our city, and to make that number 50 percent by 2035. We can do that through a combination of recycling, reusing, and retaining the water that already falls into the basin here, in Los Angeles. It’s kind of this perverse thing that we engineered all the water that falls outside of our city to come through a series of expensive and complex aqueducts to our city for our use. But anything that actually falls when it rains here in the city gets quickly washed out to the ocean, and that’s — last I checked — the only place that doesn’t need any more.
DUBNER: So, I’m curious. Out of all the different incentives that you’ve used to encourage water conservation, what worked best? Because a lot of the work that we do with Freakonomics is looking at the incentives that we think will work well, that people will respond to, but we’re often surprised by what actually works. And I’m curious if you could generalize for anybody out there who’s trying to come up with an incentive plan — maybe has nothing to do with water — but whether financial is stronger than moral is stronger than social, and so on.
GARCETTI: Well, you’re now getting at the core of my political philosophy, which is money and guilt. These two things work. Give people money to change their behavior and that helps them bridge the kind of scary new frontier of doing something like, “oh my gosh! A house without a lawn?” And guilt. Steve Carell, the actor and I, did these great spots, because it’s Hollywood out here, on the radio. We invented a character called The Drop who shows up on red carpets and shows up at events in the community, and we said, “Save The Drop.” And maybe it’s that I’m half Catholic, half Jewish, but guilt seems to work really well. And money seems to get the job done.
DUBNER: Economists like to point out that we, in this country and in most countries, have never done a very good job of pricing water. A city like L.A. is probably paying way too much if there were a kind of fair, equitable market for water, while a lot of agricultural areas are heavily subsidized and are therefore underpaying. Do you agree with that assessment or do you just kind of accept your lot and move on?
GARCETTI: Well, I don’t like pitting people — farmers against urban dwellers — together, because both are important. We have to eat things, and we need to have that as a part of our economy, and we need cities to be able to exist well. The technology actually could solve this so that it’s a non-issue. We need much more drip irrigation in our Central Valley. Look at what Israel’s done, look at what Australia’s done. They’re water pioneers when it comes to agriculture. And similarly, in our urban areas the sewage water we have gets completely treated to an almost drinkable standard — it’s a little bit more saline, but it’s not contaminated in any way —and it gets washed out to the ocean every day. About the equivalent of about 60 percent of our daily water use. Well, places like Orange County, a county to our south, have been purifying that water for a long time. But years ago here, when somebody called “toilet to tap” suddenly people said, “ugh! Yuck! We can never do that.” Even though nature does it every single day. What once was in your toilet will one day be falling from a cloud from the sky. So we’re rebranding it from “toilet to tap,” from “showers to flowers” and letting people know that this is a natural part of what we’re doing and we’re looking at how do you recycle much more water. And then you don’t have to pit farmers against city folk. We actually have plenty of water. It’s a resource which is renewable, which we have in the state, and I’m not worried that even in a drought, if this is the new normal, that we can’t sustain both.
MUSIC: Danny Massure, “Tell Your Boss” (from What It Is)
DUBNER: It strikes me that you are embracing digital technology to be used in almost any quadrant of your job to upgrade anything from commuting to sanitation and so on. Can you talk about generally why you’re so enthusiastic about that and then give some specific examples?
GARCETTI: Do we have another 45 minutes?
DUBNER: I do. I think you’re the one with the busy schedule.
GARCETTI: Well, I’m certainly a tech enthusiast. But even though that is exciting to me, I want to be clear as a mayor, I don’t believe in tech for tech’s sake. It has to be a means to an end. But I’ll give you a couple examples. When I came in, the city of Los Angeles was unranked in terms of our openness to sharing our data. We have, for instance, the most robust collection of traffic sensors in the world, which is a legacy of the 1984 Olympics, but we weren’t storing the data, year to year. We were actually destroying it, and we weren’t using it. We didn’t have data to look at something like police shootings that was robust enough on the ethnicity of folks who were involved in those shootings, on the mental health aspects of that, et cetera. And so across my 37 departments, I said, we are going to now have an open data directive. And in just two years, we’ve become ranked number one in the country — the number one city for open data. And I love it. People said, “oh, people are going to use this data against you.” And I said, “that’s the point!” When the L.A. Times did its article that pointed out, for instance, what the response times were for our fire department that helped us get them better. They were able to uncover, for instance, that trash, when people called in a couch that they wanted the city to collect in south Los Angeles was moving sometimes 3x slower than one from a different part of the city. And it allowed us to say, “we’re going to own that; we’re going to fix it” and to implement a whole new way of using technology. We’re the first city in the country to drive every block of every street, take pictures and to give them a grade of how clean they are. So we now have essentially, A, B, C and we’re not going to have any more C streets in two years because we use data in the right way. So, whatever can improve the quality of life to make government more accountable, to make your commute and your life in the city a little bit healthier and better, that’s where I point technology to.
DUBNER: You successfully pushed to raise the minimum wage in L.A. to $15 by the year 2020, a move that was followed by California statewide. A lot of economists, as I’m sure you know, argue that raising the minimum wage may have the perverse effect of making entry-level jobs scarcer — destroying those jobs — or driving employers to use more automation rather than human employees. Are you worried about that?
GARCETTI: Well, some economists do, more economists don’t, and we — I think all economists would if we did it too high. It’s all about where you put the level of raising the wage. And for us, we worked very hard to look at real-world examples. There’s always “the sky is falling” if you raise the minimum wage, and we looked at cities in California, some of which were wealthy, and some of which were relatively poor, and looked at job growth in their neighboring cities where they hadn’t raised the minimum wage and we saw more growth in the places that had actually raised the minimum wage. We worked with Berkeley economists and others to make sure that we were trying to peg it at the right level. And I think that while there is some job displacement, there will be net job growth and no question that there will be net economic activity. When you give people the lowest end of the economic spectrum money in their pocket, that’s not something that gets saved; it gets spent. And the kind of perverse decision that people have to choose between shoes for their kids at the beginning of the school year and paying off their phone bill, you can see some of those things begin to recede. And I think that there’s no question, there are some people in certain industries that are affected, but we see overall, much more new job growth because of the main streets that right now are suffering because people don’t have any disposable income and some of our working class neighborhoods rise up.
MUSIC: Olav Rasmus Vorren, “Olympic Dream” (from Olympic Dream)
DUBNER: Another position that many — if not most — economists will argue is that hosting a big event like the Olympics is a terrible idea, economically at least. That the cost is always way higher than projected and the benefits are much smaller, and yet you are trying to bring the summer Olympics back to L.A. in 2024. Why do you want the Olympics and what would L.A. do that many other places have not been able to do?
GARCETTI: Well, first of all, I agree with those analyses — Andrew Zimbalist and others who have looked at it. He’s someone who I’ve become friendly with and so far has been actually quite supportive of the way that we’re going about the Los Angeles bid. You know, for a two-and-a-half-week extravaganza to build temporary stadiums and then take them down, for instance, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for your city or for the Olympics. And I think the Olympics understand that. They want to have a more sustainable model. And the reason why Los Angeles in our last poll, 88 percent of the people support the Olympics here, is they know that we’ve been able to do this without public money in the past. In fact, we made a profit in 1984 and helped save the Olympics. And that we have such an amazing sports infrastructure that any city that decides because they’re going to get something like a world fair or the Olympics or the World Cup that’s going to build a whole bunch of infrastructure, that seems to be backwards. Shouldn’t we be building infrastructure for the people who are here all the time not just for a few weeks for the sporting event? And L.A., fortunately, is doing that. We’re fixing our airport whether the Olympics come or not. We’re building the public transportation at a level no other city is in America, whether they come or not. But what we offer then to the Olympics is: this is a great way to show that if we have all these sports facilities already built — I think we have all but one built — without that being on the Olympic ledger, this is an ideal place to be able to hold those Olympics and to make sure people focus on what’s important: the sports and bringing people together and a legacy that isn’t just about redeveloping one neighborhood and maybe gentrifying it. We’ve got everything from Silicon Valley to Hollywood to tell the stories of the athletes, and I think that should be attractive to the Olympics and should be sustainable to us financially.
MUSIC: J. Cowit, “Noah” (from Hopefully)
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It was time now for a few of our FREAK-quently Asked Questions:
DUBNER: If you had a time machine, when would you travel to? Forward or backward? And what would you want to do there?
GARCETTI: Oh, God, I’m such a student of history. There’s so many places I’d like to go backwards and see, but I’m definitely going to hit the forward button just ‘cause. I want to see what happens to this earth. I want to see whether we’re able — we will definitely see seas rise. I want to know what the impact of that’s going to be. I want to see a vision of that so I can come back and say, “it’s real! It’s going to happen! There won’t be a North Pole! California is going to be a desert.” I think that it’s probably the most pressing thing, and I just want to get that question answered.
DUBNER: Tell me the last, let’s say, three books you’ve read and what you took away from each of them?
GARCETTI: I’m in the middle of, almost about to finish, Whatever Happened to The Metric System, which is written by my dear friend, John Marciano. Great book. When I was a kid, we were all going to give up our American standard system and go to metric system, and it just shows about the idealism of clocks, of measures, the French Revolution, the metric system, people like John Quincy Adams, and historical figures that have been idealists and practical ones. Another book that I’ve been reading is called Walkable City. It’s a great, great book that kind of looks at how we can turn places, even like Los Angeles, and not just think about the view from the car, but how we can look at the view from the sidewalks and make sure we have something that is more human centered. And I’ve been re-reading Jorge Luis Borges Laberintos or Labyrinths. He’s my favorite author, and the moment that we ever think we have the world organized, I just read about one of my favorite short stories and it’s “Library of Babel,” which says that the universe is essentially a set of interconnected hexagonal rooms of books and every book that could ever be written and ever combination of words in every language is in this infinite library, and I love that as an idea.
DUBNER: I’ve been told a few things about you and I want to know if they’re true.
GARCETTI: They’re all lies.
DUBNER: Is it true that you once accepted a bet that you could swallow a giant ball of wasabi?
GARCETTI: Yes, and I ate that — got that sushi for free that night.
DUBNER: OK. Is it true, Mr. Mayor, that you are able to fall asleep anywhere for any amount of time no matter how short?
GARCETTI: Yes, I’m very proud of my sleep capacity. It’s been enacted on a New York subway, on a trotting horse, on a speed boat jumping ocean waves, and almost every day. That’s when I catch up, especially as a father of a young daughter. It’s that 10 minutes between events where I fall asleep in a car. You give me 20 minutes, or you give me 20 hours, I will fall asleep.
DUBNER: Is it true that while running the Paris marathon in 1994 you wore a turtleneck to conceal the hickeys you’d received from the woman who would become your wife.
GARCETTI: You’ve got good sources. I might have worn it before, but I did not run the marathon in a turtleneck. That would have been unfitting. But yes, I ran the Paris marathon which was incidentally sponsored by McDonald’s, and after 26.2 miles of running past McDonald’s signs, it’s all I wanted was a Big Mac.
DUBNER: But you left out the hickey part. Were there hickeys from your future wife involved?
GARCETTI: Yeah, I believe there was at least one. I don’t know if it was plural. But there might have been one.
DUBNER: And our final FREAK-quently asked question: what would you consider, for the sake of humankind, the best possible future discovery or invention?
GARCETTI: The best possible future discovery or invention. This isn’t maybe new, but I think it would be something emotional, not physical. But a sense of love and solidarity and common purpose.
DUBNER: Nice answer. I’ve just about used up our allotted time. I very much enjoyed it and appreciated the conversation, Mr. Mayor. I do have one last request. I don’t know if you can accommodate this.
GARCETTI: I’ll try my best.
DUBNER: I understand you have a piano in your office.
GARCETTI: I do.
DUBNER: If you’re in your office, can you get yourself to the piano and can you play us some outro music?
GARCETTI: Sure! I’d be happy to. I’ve been working on a song called Central Avenue after Central Avenue which is like the 42nd street of the west coast. So, yeah little jazz for you on the way out.
Thanks to Eric Garcetti, mayor of the city of Los Angeles.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Arwa Gunja and Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Alison Hockenberry, and Jolenta Greenberg. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.