Los Angeles as a city state?

The idea of the global city and metropolis of today as a city state is not a new one. However, I was interested to see this discussion of how Los Angeles might really fit the bill:

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com

Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure

  1. Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
  2. A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
  3. If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?

Can “everyone win” in the culture wars now fought in a fragmented pop culture landscape?

One writer suggests the fragmented pop culture of today allows opportunities for culture warriors of all sides to find their niche:

Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.

The fierce arguments of today often center on whether culture is changing fast enough, and whether change means chucking out old ideas, storytelling tropes and character types...

Many of the flash points in the new culture wars are the same issues of identity politics that roiled universities in earlier decades. But rather than slugging it out in academic presses through works like Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena,” which situated classical civilization’s roots in Africa, or polemics like Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” the battlefields are low culture and the combatants are consumers, mass media critics and creators…

But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter…

As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them. The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.

As noted, fragmentation is good if the goal is a lot of options and everyone getting a chance to present their perspectives. Yet, if the goal is one side or the other “winning” or even some measure of moral consensus, fragmentation is not so good.

At the same time, the idea that the culture wars are now playing out in pop culture also suggests that the average consumer is paying attention to these issues. Maybe they are moreso than in the past. However, I would guess there are still a lot of media consumers who aren’t thinking about these flashpoints as they consume. With an average consumption of 11 hours of media a day, layering the culture wars on top of that is a whole new ballgame.

Men’s Health on the isolation of suburbia

One can find commentary about suburbs almost anywhere, including at a Men’s Health blog. Here are their thoughts about the isolation of suburbia:

Researchers note that urbanites find liveliness, other people, and diversity more satisfying than those in the suburbs do. Suburbanites seem to find more satisfaction in economic status…

In the process, we replaced urban “stoop culture” with isolation. “Immigrants and other urbanites used to have casual interactions on a daily basis,” she says. “But once people started moving to the suburbs, they lost that sense of spontaneous social interaction.”

Sure, suburbanites technically could have walked the distance to their neighbor’s house. But the focus was more on individual households—partly due to the decline of the extended family. “Moving to the suburbs also meant moving away from your extended family into single family households,” Park explains.

This made our individual—fenced in—households the focus of our lives. Not just that—our new neighbors had different backgrounds and we had less in common with them, meaning forming new relationships took even more effort. (Fortunately, we finally had the TV to turn to instead!)…

The problem isn’t really suburbia itself; it’s isolation, which can affect anyone. (Fess up, city dwellers. Do you really even know who lives next door?)

On one hand, this post trades in some common images of suburbia: isolated homeowners who really live in “Disturbia, USA” (in the headline) and a thesis that asks “what’s wrong with the modern suburb?.” On the other hand, this issue of isolation is a commonly-cited problem in American life today. Interestingly, the last part of the post I cited above suggests the problem of isolation is found in both cities and suburbs. So is the problem really suburbia or is suburbia simply a symptom of larger issues of individualism and status-seeking within American culture?

Venkatesh argues Anderson’s recent book highlights sociology’s identity problem

Sudhir Venkatesh reviews Elijah Anderson’s new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy (earlier review here) and argues that the text is emblematic of a larger identity crisis within sociology:

Anderson’s struggle to make sense of the current multicultural situation is not only a function of his own intellectual uncertainty. It is also a symptom of the field in which he is working, which is confused about its direction. Where sociology once gravitated to the most pressing problems, especially the contentious issues that drove Americans apart, it no longer seems so sure of its mission. With no obvious crisis, disaster, or glaring source of inequity as a backdrop demanding public action, a great American intellectual tradition gives every sign of weathering a troubled transition…

Anderson’s fascinating foray and his inability to tie together the seemingly contradictory threads highlight the new challenges that face our field. On the one hand, sociology has moved far away from its origins in thoughtful feet-on-the ground analysis, using whatever means necessary. A crippling debate now pits the “quants,” who believe in prediction and a hard-nosed mathematical approach, against a less powerful, motley crew—historians, interviewers, cultural analysts— who must defend the scientific rigor and objectivity of any deviation from the strictly quantitative path. In practice, this means everyone retreats to his or her comfort zone. Just as the survey researcher isn’t about to take up with a street gang to gather data, it is tough for an observer to roam free, moving from one place to another as she sees fit, without risking the insult: “She’s just a journalist!” (The use of an impenetrable language doesn’t help: A common refrain paralyzing our field is, “The more people who can understand your writing, the less scientific it must be.”)

For Anderson to give up “fly on the wall” observation, his métier, and put his corporate interviews closer to center-stage would risk the “street cred” he now regularly receives. This is sad because Anderson is on to the fact that we have to re-jigger our sociological methods to keep up with the changes taking place around us. Understanding race, to cite just one example, means no longer simply watching people riding the subway and playing chess in parks. The conflicts are in back rooms, away from the eavesdropper. They are not just interpersonal, but lie within large institutions that employ, police, educate, and govern us. A smart, nimble approach would be to do more of what Anderson does—search for clues, wherever they may lie, whether this means interviewing, observing, counting, or issuing a FOIA request for data.

If you search hard enough, you can find pockets of experimentation, where sociologists stay timely and relevant without losing rigor. It is not accidental they tend to move closer to our media-frenzied world, not away from it, because it’s there that some of the most illuminating social science is being done, free of academic conventions and strictures. At Brown and Harvard, sociologists are using the provocative HBO series, The Wire, to teach students about urban inequality. At Princeton and Michigan, faculty make documentary films and harness narrative-nonfiction approaches to invigorate their research and writing. At Boston University, a model turned sociologist uses her experiences to peek behind the unforgiving world of fashion and celebrity. And the Supreme Court’s decision to grant the plaintiffs a “class” status in the Wal-Mart gender-discrimination case will hinge on an amicus brief submitted by a sociologist of labor. None of this spirited work occurs without risk, as I’ve found out through personal experience. Each time I finish a documentary film, one of my colleagues will invariably ask, “When are you going to stop and get back to doing real sociology?”

I have several thoughts about this:

1. I think it is helpful (and perhaps unusual) to see this piece at Slate.com rather than in an academic journal. At the same time, is this only possible for an academic like Venkatesh who has a best-selling popular book (Gang Leader For a Day) and is also tied to the Freakonomics crowd?

2. Venkatesh seems to be bringing up two issues.

a. The first issue is one of direction: what are the main issues or areas in which sociology could substantially contribute to society? If some of the issues of the early days such as race (still an issue but Anderson’s data suggests it is exists in different forms) and urbanization (generally settled in favor of suburbanization in America) are no longer that noteworthy, what is next? Consumerism? Gender? Inequality between the rich and poor? Exposing the contradictions still present in society (Venkatesh’s conclusion)?

This is not a new issue. Isn’t this what public sociology was supposed to solve? There also has been some talk about fragmentation within the discipline and whether sociology has a core. Additionally, there is occasional conversation about why sociology doesn’t seem to get the same kind of public or policy attention as other fields.

b. The second issue is one of data. While both Anderson and Venkatesh are well-known for practicing urban ethnography (as Venkatesh notes, a tradition going back to the early 20th century work of the Chicago School), Venkatesh notes that even Anderson had to move on to a different technique (interviewing) to find the new story. More broadly, Venkatesh places this change within a larger battle between quantitative and qualitative data where people on each side discuss what is “real” data.

This quantitative vs. qualitative debate has also been around for a while. One effort in recent years to address this moves to mixed methods where researchers use multiple sources and techniques to reach a conclusion. But it also seems that one common way to critique the work of others is to jump right to the methodology and suggest that it is limited to the point that one cannot come to much of a conclusion. Most (if not all) data is not perfect and there are often legitimate questions regarding validity and reliability but researchers are often working with the best available data given time and monetary constraints.

In the end, I’m not sure Venkatesh provides many answers. So, perhaps just like his own conclusions regarding Anderson’s book (“Better to point [these contradictions] out, however speculative and provisional the results may be, than to hide from the truth.”), we should be content just that these issues have been outlined.

(Here is an outsider’s take on this piece: “One thing that’s the matter with sociology is that like economics the discipline’s certitude of conclusion outran its methodological rigor. Being less charitable, sociology is just an ideology which occasionally dons the gown of dispassionate objectivity to maintain a semblance of respectability.” Ouch.)

More financial problems in Chicago suburbs: underfunded police and fire pensions

If the federal government is short on money and so is the state of Illinois, then financial problems were eventually going to trickle down to individual communities, even those who would usually be considered wealthy. The Chicago Tribune details how many suburban municipalities have fallen behind in funding police and fire pensions:

Of the 300-plus pension funds across the region, only about 20 are rated by the state as fully funded…

The flaws and excesses were long masked by a strong economy, when big investment returns pushed average funding levels to nearly 80 percent a decade ago — which many experts consider to be healthy. The latest figures from 2009 show suburban public-safety pension funds, on average, have just 52 percent of the assets needed to be fully funded.

Though the true cost will vary from place to place, the unpaid tab averages nearly $2,700 for every suburban household. A strong economy could boost investment returns and lessen the liability, but experts say the financial sins of the past are too great for pension systems to merely invest their way out of them.

As lawmakers consider reforms, town leaders and unions point fingers. Unions complain towns haven’t saved enough and lawmakers failed to force them. Suburban leaders complain lawmakers required them to offer lucrative benefits without the cash to pay for them. The one thing they agree on: The recession made the problems far worse…

The state doesn’t compile figures of how many towns have done that, with such findings usually buried in individual fund audits. The Tribune reviewed every audit the state would provide — 153 of them in metro Chicago — and found regulators cited a third of their taxing districts for not providing enough cash to their pension funds.

A couple of things stand out to me about this story:

1. One issue appears to be that of fragmented suburban government. Illinois, specifically the Chicago region, is well-known for its many taxing districts and municipalities. If each community, big or small, was to provide a pension fund, there were bound to be problems when some of these communities cannot meet their obligations.

2. Residents are not going to be happy about this. There are a couple of places they might direct their anger: toward local officials who didn’t properly fund these pensions or toward police or fire unions (a common issue in more conservative locations). Residents are also likely to be unhappy if fire and police personnel, people who many citizens feel keep their communities livable and safe, are let go.

3. How would local communities explain their actions regarding funding pensions? Can they or local officials be held responsible, outside of voting against them?