From Booms to Busts, the Optimists are Always Searching for the Gold
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
At a meeting I attended recently with the management of the Port of Los Angeles, a civic leader voiced his enduring optimism for a bright and successful future. I gave the unsolicited reply, “an ounce of skepticism is worth a pound of optimism.”
Others at the meeting said aghast, “Oh, no. How would anything ever get accomplished?”
Skepticism is not the opposite of optimism. That would be “pessimism.” And that, I am not.
To my mind, skepticism as it pertains to government funding of waterfront development is the same as saying, “design for the best; plan for the future and build for the worst-case scenario.”
This is why we have earthquake and fire regulations in our building codes. It’s to remember past mistakes. It’s the remembering of the past that makes me skeptical. Most agencies, politicians and bureaucracies never wish to look back at past mistakes, even when trying to avoid them in the future. This is particularly true here in California.
Dating back to the pre-Gold Rush era, California’s history is littered with examples of optimistic boosters predicting a lasting boom period, only to bust 10 years later like clockwork.
The recent Great Recession is an example of this boom-bust cycle in which hundreds of billions of dollars were made and lost based upon some bizarrely crafted mortgage bond swaps that ultimately resulted in the foreclosure on millions of Americans’ homes—some of which are just down the street from where you live.
Californians, however, have never been big on being pessimistic about the future. We’ve always thought something better was just over the horizon. Our politicians are the best at selling this “just over the rainbow” ideal and almost never, ever tell us to look back.
Even during the recent Memorial Day services, while reflecting on the sacrifices of the fallen, they never asked the questions, “What were we fighting for?” Was it really our freedom the soldiers fought for in Iraq or Korea or Vietnam? Any reflection to the contrary is seen as being “un-patriotic.”
I remain skeptical.
A year ago we interviewed former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in our office during his run to become the next sheriff of Los Angeles County. I was amazed. His optimism seemed almost delusional, considering that the FBI was investigating him at the time.
Does the allure of power cloud one’s hold on reality while running for public office? He seemed so assured that he was the one who should lead the sheriff’s department out of its scandal- ridden state—a scandal he had overseen and possibly helped create.
I remained skeptical.
The California dream that we’ve all embraced one way or another is so ingrained in our culture and consciousness that to even question it publicly is almost an absurdity.
Yet, with the recent report that Los Angeles ranks No.1 with the largest homeless population in the state, coupled with the declining number of affordable housing units in the face of rising gentrification, I do, at times, wonder aloud, “What is the future that we are building, and who does it serve?”
Questioning the dream or challenging it with uncomfortable truths is not very popular, particularly here, where so many still believe that the next gold rush is just over the horizon—be it on the waterfront at the Port of Los Angeles, the rising Playa Vista development up the 405 Freeway, or even the long-contested Ponte Vista project on Western Avenue. (Don’t we love to invent exotic-sounding Spanish names for places while refusing to learn the language?)
“Progress is building,” you can hear it in all the words, the effusive optimism, ebullient and overtly denying any negativity. Yet, as I’ve warned before, there are always the unintended consequences. Even in the best of projects. This is the value of skepticism—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
So my skepticism is not rooted in a defeatism that says that this or that can’t be done. My skepticism is rooted in caution. Let’s not make the same mistakes twice. And, if we are as smart as we think we are, let us design and build something for the future that is worth living in, for all of us.
And yes, that too is a kind of California dream.