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Going Home

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Coming Due

Fantastic column from veterano George Skelton in today’s Los Angeles Times. While the tax warriors in the state have furiously and proudly battled against any sort of tax increase, Californians have watched previously vaunted educational programs and other services drift into serious dysfunction. Skelton writes that the car tax increase by then-Governor Gray Davis (issued to shore up sagging state revenues thanks to the declining economy) triggered the emergence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political campaign, which promised an immediate return to the lower rate.

Schwarzenegger’s first act as governor in late 2003 was to knock the tax back down to 0.65%. It was probably his biggest financial mistake, certainly one from which the state never has recovered.

Skelton is dead on when he describes the choice voters will have to make in the coming years: low taxes or education, transportation, and other services. Seems like an easy choice to me, though.

A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found a majority of voters saying they supported hiking taxes for K-12 schools, higher education and programs for the needy. But 61% opposed increasing the vehicle license fee.

These days, Californians think that ludicrously low car taxes — and all property taxes — are their birthright.

We used to think that our birthrights were affordable higher education, smooth transportation systems and beautiful state parks.

Categories: Los Angeles, Uncategorized

Kidneys Were in His Mind

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

-James Joyce

 

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For Lack of Shared Imagination

The recent travails of the Los Angeles Dodgers have led to frenzied reporting by members of the local media, with many column inches dedicated to recounting the hubris of Frank McCourt. Most seem to invoke nostalgia for a time when the Dodgers were perched atop the National League and Los Angeles’s sporting scene. However, none is as penetrating as D.J. Waldie’s take on the McCourt saga and the implications for Los Angeles. Growing up in Lakewood, Waldie and his brother “listened to Vin as a boyhood gift, but his voice was (and is) just another opportunity for branding a commodity,” he writes. “From the beginning, the Dodgers’ arrival in L.A. wasn’t an embrace. It was a deal.”

After dismissing Vin Scully (!), Waldie indicts McCourt for his avariciousness but also includes Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig and Sam Zell, who purchased the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and has overseen its diminishment from Chicago (though the once-venerable daily is now apparently an asset moving its way through bankruptcy court in Delaware). But Waldie doesn’t stop at sports and newspapers: the city’s transit organization, the school district, and the good, ole L.A.P.D. have all experienced oversight or takeover in recent history.

Too many deals have soured; too much of the city has been taken into receivership. Even our citizenship – already problematic – has been foreclosed. Deals under duress have taken too many of our civic institutions from local control and put them in the hands of monitors and special masters, raising another question we would prefer to duck: Do we have the capacity to govern ourselves?

Pretty damning, when you play it out like Waldie does. There’s no better illustration for his conclusion than the fractured state of planning across the city and especially in downtown, where corporate entities seems to dictate the terms and even physical space of the city. I like even better his conclusion:

Truthfully, we never needed a shared moral imagination until now, when so many desertions from the common good have shown us how little loyalty the once powerful had for this place. And no deal, no special master, no court-ordered monitor can supply what we lack.

Los Angeles, for all its wonders, is still an exercise in balkanization, despite the fact that its strengths may lie in its multiplicity of experiences. But what we might need is more of “shared imagination,” some form of common identity or experience. But when almost half the city of L.A. is flushed out every ten years (according to the anecdotal comments of a local sociologist, as relayed by Doug Saunders, author of the intriguing Arrival City: Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World), it’s hard to create a sustainable sort of shared imagination. Waldie invokes the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, as well as other contemporaries (Matt Weinstock, Jack Smith, Art Seidenbaum, and Charles Champlin). Who has stepped up to fill this space, to invoke a real sense of Los Angeles now, just as Murray spoke to sports fans of his day? Who will bear the burden of understanding the history and nuance of the city?

For one, I look to someone like Ry Cooder. With an impressive resume (Captain Beefheart, Rolling Stones, Buena Vista Social Club, etc), Cooder has frequently impressed me with his craft, choice of projects, and insight. In the Times rather bland overview of the Dodgers’s relationship with Los Angeles, he impresses with his sense of place and unsentimental recollection, a rare thing indeed for these parts.

“I think McCourt is a junior G-man compared to the O’Malleys,” said musician Ry Cooder, an L.A. native whose 2005 concept album “Chavez Ravine” evoked the rich Mexican American culture that was swept aside when the neighborhood was razed, creating an open space that came to house Dodger Stadium. “Professional sports is not a holy institution,” Cooder said. “It’s a money thing and always has been.”

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This is 1986

Been huffing the cosmic vapors of the Virgo Four nonstop for the past week, especially this cut.

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Everyone Starts at 0 and 0

Baseball, as a whole, seems a rather weary exercise right now, even with impending labor strife in the other two major professional sports leagues. From the stodgy business decisions of its management to the avarice and idiocy of local owners to the mostly polished, and therefore dull, players, baseball seems kind of joyless. But baseball continues to inspire chestnuts to spring, nostalgia, and other handy column topics. At least one writer cashed in with a nice riposte. As Joe Mathews intimates, Major League Baseball might be staring at the other side of the bubble, much like the U.S. economy after its tumultuous fall:

Baseball’s Opening Day might be the Christmas of this American myth of renewal. On most Opening Days, fans and announcers speak the shiny optimism that all things are possible, that the pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates and the rich and talented Boston Red Sox have the same record (0-0) and the same chance. But these days Opening Day feels different and less hopeful. Perhaps that’s because the country feels different.

Baseball and America are each stuck, and in similar ways. The game and the country rode high for a long time. They seemed to reach new heights of individual achievement (record home runs, record personal wealth) and economic growth (baseball and Americans had never been richer than they were in 2007). And then the bubbles burst, and we saw that our gains had mostly been illusory.

And at least the start of the season has given a local historian to shed light on the earliest recollections of Los Angeles:

On Aug. 2, 1769, members of the expedition became the first white men to view the site of the future Los Angeles, and Crespi described the occasion:

“After traveling about a league and a half through the pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill [Elysian Park], it went on afterward to the south.

“This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement….

“As soon as we arrived, about eight heathen from a good village [Yang-na] came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river…. They presented us with some baskets of pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men were smoking pipes well made of baked clay, and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and some glass beads and they went away pleased.”

Today, not much more is known about the peaceful Yang-nas, except that they spoke in a Shoshone Indian dialect, lived in huts made from the surrounding brush, and their diet included pinon nuts. It’s not such a big leap from pinon nuts and the Yang-nas to peanuts and baseball.

Had O’Malley known of this connection, he surely would have jumped at the chance to rename his team and the stadium in honor of the first Los Angeles residents. Visualize his portly body shaking with laughter at the thought of pitting his Los Angeles Yang-nas against their former bitter New York borough rivals, the Yankees, in a World Series in Yang-na Stadium.

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Time for a Cackle Bladder

A rather irrestible story today on Slate about 2010’s most popular con games. Of course, identity theft is, and will continue to be a major source of fraud, but other swindlers’ standards are still thriving, including, incredibly, sweepstakes and contest scams.

Who are the marks? I would have guessed they’re mostly old people, but, in fact, people aged 70 and older accounted for only 7 percent of the total; the only age group responsible for a smaller share was those aged 19 and under, and of course kids are usually too young to swindle. The sucker mother lode, I’m shocked to report, is my own slice of the baby boom age cohort, ages 50 to 59. We supplied 24 percent of fraud complaints in 2010. Fortysomethings were a whisker behind us with 23 percent. Roughly the same pattern held in 2008 and 2009 (though in 2008 the fortysomethings pulled ahead to 26 percent).

Before Midge Decter seizes the opportunity to blame my generation’s credulousness on the same spirit of naive exploration that characterized youth in the 1960s—sex, drugs, radical politics, etc.—she should note that the earliest baby boomers, who created most of the ruckus, have already graduated to the 60-plus cohort, which matches the over-70 set’s modest 7 percent of consumer-fraud complaints. When the 1960s ended I was only 11 years old. But I will admit that this isn’t the first time my age cohort’s collective smarts was called into question. In 2008 it was identified by Neil Howe, a longtime parser of generational identities, as “the dumbest generation.” Still, a simpler explanation for the fiftysomethings’s pre-eminence is the Willie Sutton principle. Con artists are probably likeliest to target people who have lived long enough to accumulate some money but not so long that they’ve stopped working and started drawing down those savings as they enter retirement.

The article also mentions a great book and one that I’ve recommended to several  people, David Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The book recounts the history, technique, philosophy, and best of all, language of swindle men, circa 1964. In several cases, Maurer, a linguist by training, I think, takes the reader step by step through several of the most popular cons. I’ve almost ordered his other book, Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns, several times but am holding out hope that a cheap copy will one day manifest itself to me at a library book sale or estate sale.

Another fine contribution to the history of cheats, bamboozlers, tricksters, and charlatans is the 1948 autobiography of Yellow Kid Weil, Conman : A Master Swindler’s Own Story, reissued in a new edition in 2004 as part of Broadway’s wonderful Library of Larceny. Stories and language from a lost America….

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