NewGeography.com blogs

Attack on the Suburbs: California Senate Republican Caucus Report

Differing views on the future of California urban areas are the subject of a California Senate Republican Caucus report (Briefing Report: Attack On The Suburbs: SB 375 And Its Effects On The Housing Market).

The report details differing views on the future of California urban areas as described by University of Utah Professor Arthur C. Nelson in a report for the Urban Land Institute with those of newgeography.com authors Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox in recent editions of The Wall Street Journal.

Nelson's view is largely that the market for detached housing in California is in decline. Senate Bill 375's planning mandates are being interpreted to virtually ban further construction of detached housing in the state's metropolitan areas.

However, if Nelson's analysis were right, there would be no need for legislative intervention since people would not buy detached housing. In fact, however, the demand for detached housing remains strong. Between 2000 and 2010, detached housing accounted for 80 percent of new housing additions in California's major metropolitan areas.

Critics of Senate Bill 375 market interventions that would seek to steer the market toward hyper density housing (20 to 40 and more housing units to the acre) would increase traffic congestion, increase the intensity of air pollution and make California and encumber an already laggard economy.

The report concludes: "Clearly, before the California Legislature decides to take over the community planning duties of local governments and engage in social experimentation with the housing market, it should perhaps look at both sides of the argument to see if the experiment will be successful." 

Why Emissions Are Declining in the U.S. But Not in Europe

It wasn't that long ago that the U.S. was cast as the global climate villain, refusing to sign the Kyoto accord while Europe implemented cap and trade. 

But, as we note below in a new article for Yale360, a funny thing happened: U.S. emissions started going down in 2005 and are expected to decline further over the next decade, while Europe's cap and trade system has had no measurable impact on emissions. Even the supposedly green Germany is moving back to coal.

Why? The reason is obvious: the U.S. is benefitting from the 30-year, government-funded technological revolution that massively increased the supply of unconventional natural gas, making it cheap even when compared to coal.   

The contrast between what is happening in Europe and what is happening in the U.S. challenges anyone who still thinks pricing carbon and emissions trading are more important to emissions reductions than direct and sustained public investment in technology innovation. 

— Ted and Michael

Yale 360

Beyond Cap and Trade: A New Path to Clean Energy

Putting a price and a binding cap on carbon is not the panacea that many thought it to be. The real road to cutting U.S. emissions, two iconoclastic environmentalists argue, is for the government to help fund the development of cleaner alternatives that are better and cheaper than natural gas.

by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

A funny thing happened while environmentalists were trying and failing to cap carbon emissions in the U.S. Congress. U.S. carbon emissions started going down. The decline began in 2005 and accelerated after the financial crisis. The latest estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration now suggest that U.S. emissions will continue to decline for the next few years and remain flat for a decade or more after that.

The proximate cause of the decline in recent years has been the recession and slow economic recovery. But the reason that EIA is projecting a long-term decline over the next decade or more is the glut of cheap natural gas, mostly from unconventional sources like shale, that has profoundly changed America’s energy outlook over the next several decades.

Gas is no panacea. It still puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and has created a range of new pollution problems at the local level. Methane leakage resulting from the extraction and burning of natural gas threatens to undo much of the carbon benefit that gas holds over coal. And even were we to make a full transition from coal to gas, we would then need to transition from gas to renewables and nuclear in order to reduce U.S. emissions deeply enough to achieve the reductions that climate scientists believe will be necessary to avoid dangerous global warming.

But the shale gas revolution, and its rather significant impact on the U.S. carbon emissions outlook, offers a stark rebuke to what has been the dominant view among policy analysts and environmental advocates as to what it would take in order to begin to bend down the trajectory of U.S. emissions, namely a price on carbon and a binding cap on emissions. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute is today succeeding in reducing U.S. emissions where efforts to raise the cost of fossil fuels through carbon caps or pricing — and thereby drive the transition to renewable energy technologies — have failed.

In fact, the rapid displacement of coal with gas has required little in the way of regulations at all. Conventional air pollution regulations do represent a very low, implicit price on carbon. And a lot of good grassroots activism at the local and regional level has raised the political costs of keeping old coal plants in service and bringing new ones online.

But those efforts have become increasingly effective as gas has gotten cheaper. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute has made the transition away from coal much more viable economically, and it has put the wind at the back of political efforts to oppose new coal plants, close existing ones, and put in place stronger EPA air pollution regulations.

Yet if cheap gas is harnessing market forces to shutter old coal plants, the existence of cheap gas from unconventional places is by no means the product of those same forces, nor of laissez faire energy policies. Our current glut of gas and declining emissions are in no small part the result of 30 years of federal support for research, demonstration, and commercialization of non-conventional gas technologies without which there would be no shale gas revolution today.

Starting in the mid-seventies, the Ford and Carter administrations funded large-scale demonstration projects that proved that shale was a potentially massive source of gas. In the years that followed, the U.S. Department of Energy continued to fund research and demonstration of new fracking technologies and developed new three-dimensional mapping and horizontal drilling technologies that ultimately allowed firms to recover gas from shale at commercially viable cost and scale. And the federal non-conventional gas tax credit subsidized private firms to continue to experiment with new gas technologies at a time when few people even within the natural gas industry thought that firms would ever succeed in economically recovering gas from shale.

The gas revolution now unfolding — and its potential impact on the future trajectory of U.S. emissions — suggests that the long-standing emphasis on emissions reduction targets and timetables and on pricing have been misplaced. Even now, carbon pricing remains the sine qua non of climate policy among the academic and think-tank crowds, while much of the national environmental movement seems to view the current period as an interregnum between the failed effort to cap carbon emissions in the last Congressand the next opportunity to take up the cap-and-trade effort in some future Congress.

And yet, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which has been in place for almost a decade now and has established carbon prices well above those that would have been established by the proposed U.S. system, has had no discernible impact on European emissions. The carbon intensity of the European economy has not declined at all since the imposition of the ETS. Meanwhile green paragon Germany has embarked upon a coal-building binge under the auspices of the ETS, one that has accelerated since the Germans shut down their nuclear power plants.

Even so, proponents of U.S. emissions limits maintain that legally binding carbon caps will provide certainty that emissions will go down in the future, whereas technology development and deployment — along with efforts to regulate conventional air pollutants — do not. Certainly, energy and emissions projections have proven notoriously unreliable in the past — it is entirely possible that future emissions could be well above, or well below, the EIA’s current projections. But the cap-and-trade proposal that failed in the last Congress, like the one that has been in place in Europe, would have provided no such certainty. It was so riddled with loopholes, offset provisions, and various other cost-containment mechanisms that emissions would have been able to rise at business-as-usual levels for decades.

Arguably, the actual outcome might have been much worse. The price of the environmental movement’s demand for its “legally binding” pound of flesh was a massive handout of free emissions allocations to the coal industry, which might have slowed the transition to gas that is currently underway.

Continuing to drive down U.S. emissions will ultimately require that we develop low- or no-carbon alternatives that are better and cheaper than gas. That won’t happen overnight. The development of cost-effective technologies to recover gas from shale took more than 30 years. But we’ve already made a huge down payment on the technologies we will need.

Over the last decade, we have spent upwards of $200 billion to develop and commercialize new renewable energy technologies. China has spent even more. And those investments are beginning to pay off. Wind is now almost as cheap as gas in some areas — in prime locations with good proximity to existing transmission. Solar is also close to achieving grid parity in prime locations as well. And a new generation of nuclear designs that promises to be safer, cheaper, and easier to scale may ultimately provide zero-carbon baseload power.

All of these technologies have a long way to go before they are able to displace coal or gas at significant scale. But the key to getting there won’t be more talk of caps and carbon prices. It will be to continue along the same path that brought us cheap unconventional gas — developing and deploying the technologies and infrastructure we need from the bottom up.

When all is said and done, a cap, or a carbon price, may get us the last few yards across the finish line. But a more oblique path, focused on developing better technologies and strengthening conventional air pollution regulations, may work just as well, or even better.

For one thing should now be clear: The key to decarbonizing our economy will be developing cheap alternatives that can cost-effectively replace fossil fuels. There simply is no substitute for making clean energy cheap.

© 2010 Yale Environment 360

Making Waves on the Third Coast

If you’re looking for some good news in the U.S. economy, you might want to head to the warm, energy rich Gulf Coast. You wouldn’t be alone in making that move; over the past decade the “Third Coast”—extending from south Texas to the Gulf of Mexico—enjoyed 12% job growth, or about twice the national average.

This is remarkable given that the region was socked with several devastating hurricanes, including Katrina in 2005. New Orleans’ population, for instance, is still well below its pre-Katrina level, although now gaining steadily.

New Orleans also demonstrates the possibilities. Film production is way up, and the city appears to be emerging as a magnet for video game, commercials, and special effects firms.

Some of the biggest advances are further along the periphery from New Orleans, often somewhat closer to Baton Rouge. Nucor is constructing a massive new steel mill in Convent, located in St. James Parish about an hour away from New Orleans. Local chemical and oil refinery firms are also expanding and investing in new equipment.

Yet it’s Houston’s star that is shining brightest. Over the past decade, when the country actually slightly lost jobs, the Houston-Sugarland-Baytown region expanded its employment by over 15%. Since 1990, the number of jobs has risen by 46%, more than twice the national average. Over a period of ten years, the region’s population has soared 26%, the most of any of the country’s largest metro areas, and again better than twice the national norm. Migrants are coming not only from other countries, but from much of the rest of the U.S., particularly the industrial Midwest, Northeast, and California.

Optimism among businesspeople on the Third Coast is infectious, as can be seen in the expanding footprint of the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest such facility. Much of the money for this amazing complex comes from a similar boom in oil and gas.

If there’s a negative tone anywhere, it’s about politics. Concerns over continued federal obstacles to responsible expansions in oil and gas production are widespread. There’s a real concern that this year’s elections will lead to a slowdown in orders and future expansion. Let’s hope not.

This piece first appeared at the National Chamber Foundation Blog.

Last of the Bohemians

When I moved to Los Angeles 30 years ago, Ocean Front Walk in Venice Beach looked like a hippie parody.  It had a counter-cultural veneer, but didn’t rate as an authentic bohemian hot spot.

Contrast, for example, with New York’s East Village with its revolutionaries, junkies, artists and various iconoclasts living side-by-side.

The weekend spectacle at Venice – vendors, performers and “street people” showing off to crowds of tourists – struck me as self-conscious and phony. Plus, I could never call Ocean Front Walk a “board walk” because (unlike Brighton Beach and Coney Island) there was No Board.

Since then, of course, New York has been “cleaned up.” Now Tompkins Square is family-friendly and the old walk-ups are inhabited by urban professionals worried about layoffs and declining property values.

Times have changed.  The gulf between haves and have-nots is widening.  Living on the edge is not just a life-style choice.  “Drop-outs” need somewhere to go.

These days I see Ocean Front Walk in Venice as more a refuge than a counter-cultural carnival.  With overnighters climbing out of their sleeping bags each morning, it’s a pretty good location for people without money.

Where else should they live?

I understand why local residents are advocating that something be done to make Ocean Front Walk safer and more sanitary.  With some calling for a police “crack down.”

But now that the “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out” sub-culture is a history text book sidebar, I’m glad there is, at least, someplace warm for the dispossessed to hang out.

Here at Venice Beach, where the continental U.S. ends, could be the last stop for these new bohemians.

Making Stuff Up at Atlantic Cities

Editor Sommer Mathis over at The Atlantic Cities has taken to making stuff up. In a recent post she reported on a dispute in the city of Seattle over minimum parking requirements relating to multi-unit buildings. She said:

Defenders of suburban-style development like Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin would argue that these young people just don't understand how their lives and desires are going to change once they start families. Single-family, detached homes with a quarter acre of land and two cars in the garage are suddenly going to look a lot better to all these idealistic, bicycle riding twenty-somethings once the reality of parenthood sets in.

Kotkin and Cox also worry that developers and city planners rushing to meet the youth-driven demand for denser housing options that don't necessarily include parking are shooting themselves in the foot.

The only problem is that I have never commented on minimum parking requirements. I checked with Joel Kotkin and he advises that he has never covered the issue.

Mathis continues (after an citing a quote by Joel Kotkin article in Forbes):

What's funny about these assumptions is their total lack of faith in the free market.

Of course, since our alleged positions on minimum parking requirements are figments of Mathis' imagination, her "free market" conclusion misses the mark. Indeed, the most destructive impact on urban land markets today is urban growth boundaries and "winner picking" land use restrictions that deny people their preferences (as my Wall Street Journal piece, California's War on Suburbia, argued on Saturday). I am most concerned about these because of their potential for hampering the metropolitan economy, interfering with upward mobility and increasing poverty (I suspect Joel would agree). Moreover, young households soon figure out that they need more than the 4th floor (or 40th floor) balcony to raise a child.

Census Bureau Releases Latest Take on America’s Urban Areas

We are used to dealing with jurisdictional boundaries when assessing and comparing cities. These are often either municipal areas or metropolitan statistical areas (which are based on entire counties). But these can have little relevance to the amount of area in a given city-region that is actually urban in nature. This makes apples to apples across regions difficult.

Once a decade though the Census Bureau gives us a more detailed look. They release definitions of so-called “urbanized areas” that attempt to look at just the amount of land that is actually urban in form. In theory this would allow for better apples to apples comparisons between regions. Unfortunately, most data is not sliced this way, so we only get this glimpse. Here’s the map of the new 2010 urbanized area definitions:


Wendell Cox has a breakdown of the largest urbanized areas that includes density. He also published a historical review that tracks urbanized area population and density since 1950 for the largest city regions. For more thoughts on urbanized areas, see Nate Berg’s take over at Atlantic Cities.

I don’t want to try to offer a complete analysis of this right now, but one thing that really jumped out at me was the very low densities of some southern boomtowns like Atlanta (1,707/sq. mi) and Charlotte (1,685/sq. mi.). Contrast with even Houston (2,979/sq. mi.) and Dallas (2,879/sq. mi) and see the difference. Atlanta is already showing serious signs of weakness vs. the Texas mega-metros and I wonder if this is part of the reason why. It also makes me wonder if Charlotte might someday suffer in a similar manner if its growth ever flames out.

Transportation Aborted

Like most Americans, I was bombarded by sound-bites and blog-bytes surrounding an amendment to an Act of Congress that would require a woman to submit to and review the results of a trans-vaginal ultrasound before receiving an abortion. This amendment was covered ad nauseam by everyone from the Huffington Post to the nightly news on broadcast television. I don’t mind admitting that I’m past the age where this Act of Congress would have an effect on me personally.

What really bothered me was that no one talked about the core problem of how deranged our political process has become in Washington. The real issue here that impacts all of us is that this amendment was attached to a transportation funding bill – TRANSPORTATION, not a Health Care Bill or a Health Insurance Bill or even an Equal Opportunity Employment Bill but a TRANSPORTATION funding bill.

All of these journalists are as at fault over the issue as the bunch of Congressmen who tried – once again – to slip one past the balance of powers and our democratic form of government. The guilty parties in Washington DC start with:

In the House of Representatives, Mr. Fortenberry (NE), Mr. Boren (OK), Mrs. McMorris Rodgers (WA), Mr.Scalise (LA), Mr. Tiberi (OH), Mr. CONAWAY (TX), Mr. Lamborn (CO), Mr. Walberg (MI), and Mr. Lipinski (IL) who introduced  “H.R.1179 -- Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011” on March 17, 2011. By the time the bill was attached as an amendment to the highway funding bill, the number of co-sponsors had risen from 8 to 221.

In the Senate, Mr. Blunt (MO), Mr. Rubio (FL), and Ms. Ayotte (NH)) introduced S. 1467 on August 2, 2011. The cosponsors in the Senate went from 2 to 37.

That’s a total of 260 elected representatives who will be responsible for the continuing deterioration of highway infrastructure in the United States. The current Federal authorization for funding surface transportation programs ends March 30, 2012.

The current funding authorization is just the most recent in a long line of temporary extensions that have been strung together since the last 5-year plan expired in 2009. The highway funding bill in question – to which this healthcare amendment is being attached – would authorize funding of $109 billion over 2 years. If nothing is done by March 30, if no action is taken to fund US highway infrastructure, the Department of Transportation (DoT) will have to furlough workers and stop paying contractors, according to Humberto Sanches of Roll Call. Last summer, DoT sent home 4,000 FAA employees and 70,000 private-sector workers because Congress failed to act on funding.

The process for highway funding is already convoluted and inefficient – watching the current Congress add abortion amendments to the funding bill gives us a peek into how it got that way. In the meantime the United States’ infrastructure is crumbling and the rest of the world is getting ahead of us. No wonder we’re deranged.

New US Urban Area Data Released

This morning the US Bureau of the Census released data for urban areas in the United States. The urban population of the US rose to 249.3 million in 2010, out of a total population of 308.7 million. Urbanization covered 106,000 square miles, representing 3.0 percent of the US land mass. Overall urban density was 2,342 per square mile (905 per square kilometer).

The Los Angeles urban area was again the nation's most dense, at 6,999 per square mile (2,702 per square kilometer), a slight reduction from the 7,068 figure (2,729 per square kilometer) in 2000. The most dense urban areas with more than 1,000,000 population were Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, New York and Las Vegas (in that order).

Overall, the 41 major urban areas had an average density of 3,245 per square mile (1,253 per square kilometer). The table below provides data for the major urban areas and overall data.






United States Urban Area Data: 2010 Census
Major Urban Areas  & Summary
Rank Urban Area
Population
Land Area (Square Miles)
Density
Density per Square KM
1 New York--Newark, NY--NJ--CT
18,351,295
3,450
5,319
2,054
2 Los Angeles--Long Beach--Anaheim, CA
12,150,996
1,736
6,999
2,702
3 Chicago, IL--IN
8,608,208
2,443
3,524
1,361
4 Miami, FL
5,502,379
1,239
4,442
1,715
5 Philadelphia, PA--NJ--DE--MD
5,441,567
1,981
2,746
1,060
6 Dallas--Fort Worth--Arlington, TX
5,121,892
1,779
2,879
1,112
7 Houston, TX
4,944,332
1,660
2,979
1,150
8 Washington, DC--VA--MD
4,586,770
1,322
3,470
1,340
9 Atlanta, GA
4,515,419
2,645
1,707
659
10 Boston, MA--NH--RI
4,181,019
1,873
2,232
862
11 Detroit, MI
3,734,090
1,337
2,793
1,078
12 Phoenix--Mesa, AZ
3,629,114
1,147
3,165
1,222
13 San Francisco--Oakland, CA
3,281,212
524
6,266
2,419
14 Seattle, WA
3,059,393
1,010
3,028
1,169
15 San Diego, CA
2,956,746
732
4,037
1,559
16 Minneapolis--St. Paul, MN--WI
2,650,890
1,022
2,594
1,002
17 Tampa--St. Petersburg, FL
2,441,770
957
2,552
985
18 Denver--Aurora, CO
2,374,203
668
3,554
1,372
19 Baltimore, MD
2,203,663
717
3,073
1,187
20 St. Louis, MO--IL
2,150,706
924
2,329
899
21 Riverside--San Bernardino, CA
1,932,666
545
3,546
1,369
22 Las Vegas--Henderson, NV
1,886,011
417
4,525
1,747
23 Portland, OR--WA
1,849,898
524
3,528
1,362
24 Cleveland, OH
1,780,673
772
2,307
891
25 San Antonio, TX
1,758,210
597
2,945
1,137
26 Pittsburgh, PA
1,733,853
905
1,916
740
27 Sacramento, CA
1,723,634
471
3,660
1,413
28 San Jose, CA
1,664,496
286
5,820
2,247
29 Cincinnati, OH--KY--IN
1,624,827
788
2,063
796
30 Kansas City, MO--KS
1,519,417
678
2,242
865
31 Orlando, FL
1,510,516
598
2,527
976
32 Indianapolis, IN
1,487,483
706
2,108
814
33 Virginia Beach, VA
1,439,666
515
2,793
1,078
34 Milwaukee, WI
1,376,476
546
2,523
974
35 Columbus, OH
1,368,035
510
2,680
1,035
36 Austin, TX
1,362,416
523
2,605
1,006
37 Charlotte, NC--SC
1,249,442
741
1,685
651
38 Providence, RI--MA
1,190,956
545
2,185
844
39 Jacksonville, FL
1,065,219
530
2,009
775
40 Memphis, TN--MS--AR
1,060,061
497
2,132
823
41 Salt Lake City--West Valley City, UT
1,021,243
278
3,675
1,419
Total
133,490,862
41,139
3,245
1,253
Other Urban Areas
115,762,409
65,247
1,774
685
Total Urban
249,253,271
106,386
2,343
905
Rural
59,492,267
3,431,052
17
7
Total Population
308,745,538
3,537,439
87
34
Share Urban
80.7%
3.0%

The House Home Savings Built

After doing his duty for the Navy in Washington D.C. during World War II, my father returned to Los Angeles, and my parents moved into the Talmadge Apartments between Western and Vermont. They’d been married for 17 years without having any children. So my father informally adopted his two nephews.

Around 1949, those nephews, who were students at UCLA, threw a party at the apartment. It was apparently a night to remember. The management decided to not renew my father’s lease. Shortly after that, my father’s wife announced, after nearly two decades of a childless marriage, that she was with child. (Full disclosure: that child was none other than this writer.)

So my dad leased a house facing the Wilshire Country Club in Hancock Park. Then, in 1959, he formed a corporation to buy a nearby Tudor house, hire domestics, and rent the house back to him with domestic services. This was the man who founded the largest savings and loan in America, who in those years probably enabled more Californians to become homeowners than anyone else. But he was technically a renter all his life. Those were the days of the 70-percent and 90-percent top tax brackets, and byzantine legal structures were common.

In mid-century Los Angeles, anything on Wilshire Boulevard was considered more prestigious than anything on the side streets. On the eastern end near Lafayette Park was the Bullocks Wilshire department store. Several miles west were the Miracle Mile department stores, which had beautiful shop windows facing the boulevard, even though most people entered the stores through portes-cochères in the rear. Many of the major liberal establishment churches—the PCUSA, the United Methodists, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Magnin’s huge reform synagogue—lined the street. The Ambassador Hotel was one of the great hotels of the city. And then there was The Brown Derby Restaurant, which gave us the Cobb Salad.

My father was originally from Omaha, Nebraska, but he moved west, graduating from the University of Southern California in 1927 and emerging from the Great Depression as a successful insurance underwriter. During the war, he heard talk among the military that Southern California was going to take off, so he bought a one-branch thrift downtown called Home Savings and Loan. Soon, it grew to be a multi-branched empire in four counties: Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

Partly to get involved in philanthropy and partly to set up an estate plan, my father set up The Ahmanson Foundation. The idea was that The Ahmanson Foundation, after my father’s death, would inherit and control the for-profit companies. This was a common legal arrangement at the time, offering a way for wealthy families to preserve more of the family fortune. (I recommend the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut, for a sense of how it worked.)

Apparently, my father wasn’t a full member of the downtown establishment, for he chose to base his business several miles west of the establishment thoroughfares of Flower and Figueroa. He recruited the artist Millard Sheets to design for him a corporate headquarters on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, between Serrano and Oxford Streets, in the early 1950s. Then he conceived of a fancier project for that site and hired Edward Durell Stone to design it. A model of it was in our house during my later high school years. It featured two buildings next to each other, with concave faces toward a courtyard. A third, taller building was to stand in back. But that part was never built.

My father died suddenly on June 17, 1968, before ground was broken on the project. Fifteen months later, the U. S. Congress passed, and President Nixon signed, a bill called the Tax Reform Act of 1969. It rendered my father’s estate plan obsolete, for a non-profit foundation could no longer own a controlling interest in a for-profit corporation. Instead of remaining under the control of the The Ahmanson Foundation, Home Savings of America would have to go public. In the meantime, my father’s nephew Robert Ahmanson wound up overseeing construction on the pair of buildings. They were finished in 1973.

The interest rate spike of the early ’80s was hard on Home Savings of America, and they sold off the Ahmanson Center on Wilshire at that time. Still, Home Savings coasted through the savings and loan crisis of the end of the ’80s, thanks to maintaining the conservative policies that my father had instituted.

The area changed a lot in these years. After the Watts Riots of 1965, and in the 10 or 15 years after that, the upper and upper-middle classes of Pasadena, San Marino, Arcadia, and Hancock Park relocated en masse to the Newport Beach area in what I call the secessio patriciorum, or the secession of the patricians. Los Angeles Magazine featured an article in 1977 called “The Ripening of Orange County: Is It Stealing the L.A. Dream?” Indeed, a lot of the life seemed to get sucked out of Los Angeles at that time. One consequence of the secessio was that finance and retail and new construction tended to concentrate either downtown or west of central Beverly Hills. That left the Wilshire corridor in between down at the heels.

Later, that part of Wilshire recovered and reinvented itself. New immigrants from Korea and Latin American countries moved in, and, for many years, such gentrification as took place in the area was done by these immigrants and not so much by white Anglos. After 1990, previously uncool areas like Pasadena, Santa Monica, and parts of downtown began to recover, and the Wilshire district became the heart of Koreatown. I now think of Los Angeles as being similar to San Francisco and Oakland. The West Side up to Hancock Park is like San Francisco, while the parts east of it are like Oakland and the East Bay. London and Berlin have the same sort of east-west-ness.

Koreatown is a wonderful neighborhood, and the Ahmanson Center is still beautiful. But I can’t help feeling a touch of melancholy that my dad’s vision was never fulfilled. He’d hoped to make that part of Wilshire Boulevard one of the great financial and retail corridors of America. Today, the big players are concentrated downtown or in Beverly Hills and westward.

If you walk up the Oxford Street side of the Ahmanson Center, you can see a travertine block with a Latin inscription. Translated, it says, “Robertus and Mauritius, two virtuous men, dedicate this stone to themselves.” Robertus is Robert Ahmanson, who supervised the construction of the center. Mauritius is Maurizio Bufalini, owner of a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy. Bufalini was a good friend of our family, and he provided the Italian and Greek marble that decorates the center. Both these men are “late,” as they say in Botswana English, meaning dead. The stone is dusty now, but the words can still be read. I wonder if anybody notices it, or wonders what it means.

This piece first appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

The Slippery Slope of Corporate Culture

Greg Smith’s resignation lament in the New York Times, Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs, has rightly caused an uproar. He writes, “I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” implying that it has been toxic and destructive all along. Tell us something we don’t know.

Twenty years ago when I worked at JP Morgan, the public bond underwriters and pension managers complained that they were at a disadvantage when competing for business with Goldman because they weren’t allowed to “pay to play”, i.e. make political contributions in exchange for business.

Those two banks had long been at opposite ends of the spectrum. A century ago, the original J. Pierpont Morgan told counsel for a Congressional committee investigating the money trust that the most important criterion for supplying commercial credit was character, “Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me for all the bonds in Christendom.” Language, I must add, that distinguished him in ways large and small from moneylenders like Mr. Goldman and Mr. Sachs. Fifteen years ago an unnamed executive summed up the difference in business practices between the two banks to a Times reporter: “Morgan will show up with 20 people for a three-hour presentation to a client. Goldman Sachs will just send two people to sketch out a deal on a napkin at the golf club bar.”

With Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson, and Jon Corzine among the ranks of Goldman's recent former CEOs who have distinguished themselves in government and finance, you learn almost everything you need to know about the contemporary Goldman ethic, good and bad. Current honcho Lloyd Blankfein has said they are doing “God’s work.” For a Goldman investment banker to evoke the almighty as justification, he has to feel real heat.

Mr. Smith feels let down by corruption in Goldman’s corporate culture:

“It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture … revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients…. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years."

A closer look at that culture would reveal something besides always doing right by the client. Corporate culture is really a nice way of moving people with a variety of motives in lockstep. One man’s client service is another man’s rapacious self-interest. Given the profitability of modern finance, rapacious self-interest has had an inexorable pull. The habits ingrained through a strong corporate culture are merely instruments for moving the herd along. Call it conformism, and in this, as in so many other areas, there’s no question that Goldman is a leader.

Upon reading Smith’s op-ed, I opened an excellent reference volume, The Wiley Book of Business Quotations, to the Goldman Sachs entry for corporate culture. (Okay, maybe that isn't quite accurate—I compiled the book myself and knew what was there.) I found Theresa M. Potter's New York Metropolitan Diary column of November 13, 1996:

Dear Diary:
Overheard on the elevator at Goldman Sachs on a recent “dress-down Friday,” a conversation between a long-time partner and a smartly attired young analyst.
Partner (sternly): It’s Friday. You’re not supposed to be wearing a tie.”
Analyst (crestfallen): “But it’s not silk.”

It’s a slippery slope.

Subjects: