California: It’s even worse than you think

Home sweet homelessness: The new normal in California.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s ,The Mask of the Red Death, Prince Prospero hosts a hedonistic masquerade while outside his ramparts the population succumb to a gruesome plague. The prince installs garish, grotesque décor in his castle’s seven interconnected halls. He provides revelers with music and wine, dancers, clowns, buffoons, and “dreams.” As far as the prince and the nobility are concerned, beyond their debauched bacchanalia “The external world could take care of itself. Meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

It’s a classic trope, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Literature and history are replete with let-them-eat-cake moments. In the 21st century California’s political class has joined the sad cortège. They have their own Prosperos in the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti, les élues whose keeps are gated communities in Marin County, bastioned manses in Palo Alto, compounds in Bel Air and Malibu. They most assuredly aren’t thinking about, much less grieving for, the external world.

While hundreds of thousands of homeless decay on the streets of the state’s once-great cities, California’s elites cloister in their rarified confines, perversely feting themselves for their enlightened benevolence. While some 6 million of their fellow Californians languish in poverty they refuse to return so much as a farthing; indeed, the extract ever-more tribute. While millions of children languish in some of the country’s worst schools they host fundraisers for their own children’s exclusive acadamae, lavish events at which they auction gold earrings and Tahoe vacations. Their concern for the commoners is but a pretext.

All the while they assure themselves that thanks to their sagacity, outside the battlements all is prosperity and contentment. And why would they not? Their own vaults runneth over.

At least, in theory. In reality California already is bankrupt. The state has at least $1.5 trillion in outstanding bonds, loans, and other long-term liabilities, along with unfunded liabilities for post-employment benefits (primarily public sector retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension liabilities. And that’s just amount we know about: California politicians are infamous for flubbing numbers. The “bullet” train is Exhibit A. Add to that number the hundreds of billions that will be necessary to repair and maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile the state’s tax receipts have been declining for years. Maybe that’s why Prince Gavin is proposing that the state tax drinking water.

These are not the qualities of a prosperous, successful state. They are harbingers of horrible things to come. Not that the political class notices.

California’s political class send their kids to schools like this one in Marin County for a cool $45,000 per year…
…while millions of their fellow citizens languish in conditions like these.

Newsom’s patrons are among the eldest of California’s nobility: the Gettys, the Fishers, the Pritzkers. He wasn’t born rich, but his family was well-connected. His father William was a state appellate judge and trustee of the Getty family fortune. When John Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, William Newsom served as bag man with the ransom. Gavin was raised safe within the palace. As a consequence, his contact with average Californians always is fleeting, ephemeral, a sort of half baked, modern day noblesse oblige. He plays his part with a cheery gusto that is gruesome in light of reality. Like Prospero he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.”

We have our Prosperos. The plagues outside their walls are Poverty, Addiction, Mental Illness, Ignorance, Hopelessness, Helplessness. The first victims already are dying in the streets – Los Angeles has experienced more than 1,200 homeless deaths since 2017. The victims are addicts wasting away before your eyes, lunatics being devoured from within by demons only they can see and hear, people who have given up on life. They live in mile after mile of tent cities, from Skid Row to Santa Monica and all points in between Unreported crime is rampant. We’ll never know how many homeless women will be raped. Broad swaths of L.A. and San Francisco have been reduced to near-anarchy. Entire neighborhoods resemble ghost towns and entire towns resemble the End of Days. In such places Third World conditions would be an improvement. Unimaginably, conditions are even worse in the Central Valley and northern counties.

The plagues afflicting California are not just metaphorical: Typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis, and tuberculosis all have been identified on our streets. There are increasing fears of a full blown outbreak of bubonic plague.

Life in L.A., the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history.

You see the first victims also in our public schools: The thousand-yard stare on the face of a South L.A. middle schooler whose best friend was shot in a drive-by when they were children. The high school graduate wandering lost through a world she was never taught to navigate, lacking so much as the ability to fill out a fast food job application. In 2018 alone child homelessness spiked by 50% in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Outside California’s one-great cities, entire counties are being consumed as people sickened by one or more of California’s plagues abandon their neighborhoods. As the older generation passes no one is there to take their place. In the Central Valley hundreds of communities resemble shantytowns. So too in places farther south like Palmdale, and in the far north like Siskiyou; these places are previews.

The political class whisk past and tut-tut and remind their minders to remind them to mention it in their next address.

Poe’s tale has a final, crucial element: A clock. Within one of the chambers in the castle is an enormous ebony clock that on the hour chimes a peculiar, and peculiarly chilling chime that freezes the revelers in place: “While the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”

The clock reminds them that the whole garish, phantasmagoric affair is a lie. They are going to die the same agonizing death as the commoners.

We’ve begun to hear the chimes of Prospero’s clock in California. We hear it in a hundred car windows being smashed by vagrants every night in San Francisco. We hear it in the screams of the insane in the streets, the wail of a siren in the middle of the night racing to resuscitate a drug overdose victim.

We hear it more earnestly when a mentally ill homeless man stabs and kills a father while he’s at a café, his five-year-old daughter on his lap. When an innocent young woman is gunned down by an illegal alien in San Francisco. It becomes deafening when we hear the plea of millions of children in failed public schools: I want to learn.

In the end, of course, the Red Death reaches the nobility. In the end the only difference between Prince Prospero and the lowest commoner is the opulence of his demise (and, perhaps, his ultimate destination).

Unless things change, Prospero’s clock will soon be tolling for every Californian.


California needs to stop tilting at mass transit windmills and get serious about solving gridlock and reducing emissions

The blue bus….isn’t calling us. At least not on schedule.

Los Angeles has the third largest transit system in the country, and virtually no one uses it. Despite the investment of billions of dollars to expand bus and light rail service, ridership is at historic lows. For most Angelenos, Metro has always been a punchline. Likewise, relative to its size San Francisco has a huge and hugely well-funded transit system, yet it is perpetually on the brink of disaster. Complaining about Muni is a Frisco pastime on par with bragging about the city’s restaurant scene and hating on Los Angeles. Meanwhile communities from Sonoma to Marin to San Diego continue to invest heavily in transit regardless of actual demand.

It’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that these investments will fail to pay dividends in the form of reduced traffic or emissions. Trying to force people onto transit simply goes against nature. Human beings have been wandering since the epoch of hunter gatherers, and are hard-wired to move around as much as possible as quickly as possible. We domesticated horses 6,000 years ago because some ancient genius realized how much farther and faster a horse moved compared to a person. What’s more, over the millennia human beings have demonstrated consistently that we’re willing to put up with a lot of danger and inconvenience in exchange for rapid mobility. Riding a horse long distances is a hazardous and exhausting business, but it sure beats walking. For thousands of years the average city or town was an infectious cesspool of manure, urine, cud, and other noxious equine and bovine byproducts that occasionally contributed to public health crises that killed millions. But people kept breeding and buying horses and draught animals because they were worth the risks and the unpleasantness. The desire for distance and speed horses offered proved universal. First domesticated on the Eurasian steppe, Equus ferus quickly was adapted across Asia, the subcontinent, and Europe. Colonists brought horses to the Americas, where the rapidity of adoption by native peoples was particularly striking. Tribes including the Apache and Comanche became better riders than the Europeans. Mobility knows no race, creed, or color.

In the modern era private automobiles offer more freedom than any other mode of transit. Like riding a horse driving a car is dangerous and creates environmental side effects. Yet in the overwhelming majority of places is isn’t even a close call: People simply can access a far greater diversity of destinations in cars, and do more once they get there. Suffice it to say it would be a significant hassle to transport your daughter and her soccer teammates – not to mention their equipment – to and from practice on a bus. You can’t take your dogs to the dog park on light rail (for that matter unless they’re service dogs you can’t take them anywhere on transit). It’s a safe bet that most of your friends don’t live on the same transit lines you do.

As with the domestic horse in ages past desire for automobile ownership knows no class or race barriers: A 2018 UCLA study commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) notes that over the last 15 years in the region “vehicle ownership has grown particularly sharply among subgroups most likely to use transit, such as the low-income and the foreign born from Latin America.” Moreover, “compared to Americans at large, the poor use transit more but like it less. The typical low-income rider wants to graduate to automobiles, while the typical driver might view transit positively but have little interest in using it.” And, “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.

Southern California’s experience is far from unique nationally and even globally. As China’s economic fortunes blossomed over the last 30 years car ownership in that country has exploded. While there are a few places around the world where transit makes sense for many daily trips, such as Manhattan, in the overwhelming majority of places a car is the optimal form of personal transportation, and always will be.

Yet California lawmakers continue to throw billions at failing systems. They’re imposing road diets and other congestion increasing policies on thousands of miles of streets and roads. Thousands of empty and nearly empty buses, streetcars, trolleys, and light rail cars ply our gridlocked streets while average folks just try to get to work or school. It’s the ultimate example of supply side economics: Build it, and they still won’t come.

The last standing justification for this misguided activity is, of course, climate change. We’re told that king car is the scourge of Mother Nature, that if we don’t surrender our Hyundais the Himalayas are doomed.

Yet imagine if all those billions spent on vacant light rail, empty buses, desolate streetcars, and bullet trains to nowhere instead went to support and expand truly promising clean technologies, many of which already are proven or close to it. The most advanced economy in the world needs to think bigger than 18th and 19th century solutions like trains and bikes. We need to start thinking in terms of Manhattan Projects for fuel cell cars, electrified roads, autonomous electric drones, hyperloops, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and EV charging points everywhere. The state that gave birth to the aerospace industry should be investing in the incredibly exciting electric aircraft start-ups such as Zunum. Even the scaled back version of the state’s high speed rail project – a 117 mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield that makes little economic sense – will run upward of $30 billion. We should invest that money in clean technologies people actually will use and that fit the modern built environment.

A clean (and gorgeous) transportation future…if California finds the will.

On a simpler level, instead of bus and carpool lanes how about dedicated ride share lanes?

Certainly, transit will continue to have a role, albeit a substantially scaled back one. The oft discussed high speed rail connection between L.A. and Las Vegas, for example, makes eminent sense. Street level trolleys covering short hops in urban cores likewise deserve study.

Overall, though, instead of trying to foist transit on people who have shown for decades they don’t want it, policymakers should be paving the way for a new era. Alas, as long as they remain focused on outdated technologies average Californians will continue to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars stranded in gridlock that’s completely avoidable. Our pocketbooks and our environment will continue to suffer.

Latest bike activist propaganda: Bike lanes are safer for drivers, too!

The bicycle lane to nowhere….

If there is one thing we have learned in the fight over transportation planning and the future of our cities, it’s that bicycle activists never tire of spreading misleading and outright false information to further their purblind agendas. So it’s no surprise that the usual suspects like CityLab are catching the vapors over a new study that suggests protected bike lanes make travel safer for all road users.

The study, by urban planning professors at the University of Colorado and University of New Mexico, concludes “Better safety outcomes are instead associated with a greater prevalence of bike facilities – particularly protected and separated bike facilities – at the block group level and, more strongly so, across the overall city.”

Color us skeptical. As demonstrated in places from Los Angeles, California to Waverly, Iowa, road diets just as often increase the number of overall accidents significantly. Moreover, there’s always a tell when people try to fudge the facts. Here, the study’s authors conclude in part, “Where cycle tracks were most abundant on a citywide basis, fatal crash rates dropped by 44 percent compared to the average city.” Problem is, there’s no such thing as an “average city.” This is a common sleight of hand activists employ, comparing one set of statistics against a non-existent alternative. It’s a classic straw man argument. As the saying goes, there are three kinds of falsehoods: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument let’s accept the study’s conclusions: “bike facilities” tend to slow down traffic, and slower traffic can mean fewer serious accidents. Even if that’s true, as with so much of the activists’ propaganda the study still only tells part of the story, and is highly misleading.

As we’ve reported consistently, many bike facilities, including protected bike lanes, significantly impact emergency response times. Consider: Prior to the installation of dozens of miles of road diets and protected bike lanes, New York City experienced approximately 120 pedestrian and cyclist deaths annually. It goes without saying that every single death is a tragedy and certainly communities should take all reasonable steps to minimize that number. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2017 (the last year for which complete data is available), there were 44,092 deaths in New York attributable to heart disease. There were 6,264 deaths attributable to strokes, 3,921 drug overdoses, 722 firearm deaths, and 577 homicides. Put another way: There are more deaths from these categories of emergencies every single day than the total number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths annually. Making it more difficult for emergency responders to travel from station to scene all but guarantees these numbers will go up as the city installs more and more road diets. As any first responder can attest, minutes and even seconds can make the difference between life and death, or recovery and permanent disability.

It’s also worth pointing out that a significant percentage of pedestrians and cyclists are at fault in fatal accidents (such as the intoxicated man who was killed last summer walking down the middle of the 110 freeway in L.A. at three in the morning). All the bike lanes in the world won’t prevent instances of basic stupidity – cyclists who routinely ignore stop signs and red lights, or distracted drivers checking email at 40 miles an hour. However, road diets, particularly those with protected bike lanes, can keep ambulances from reaching victims in time to save their lives.

If the activists truly cared about peoples’ lives they would be calling for the immediate removal of road diets and bike lanes on major thoroughfares and emergency routes. Instead, they’re willing to risk literally tens of thousands of lives annually in cities like New York and Los Angeles – and millions nationwide – to further their agenda (an agenda, by the way, that disproportionately serves young, affluent “bike bros” at the expense of everyone else, but we digress).

As demonstrated in studies by a former Los Angeles Fire Marshall, a former Austin, Texas assistant fire chief and an engineer with the National Bureau of Standards laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, even minor traffic calming measures like speed bumps slow down emergency vehicles. Major reconfigurations like road diets and protected bike lanes have proven in many cases to be catastrophic.

According to multiple senior officials with fire departments in California, Washington state, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New York, more lives are being lost in non-traffic emergencies than are being saved by changes to roads. Off the record, numerous firefighters have confirmed to The All Aspect Report that victims in medical emergencies have died because help couldn’t reach them in time due to road diets. Said one senior fire official in southern California, “For the politicians to characterize the road diet [in our community] as an improvement is a lie.”

Captain Henry Holt of the Oakland, California Fire Department confirms that his crews get bogged down on the Telegraph Avenue road diet every single day. It gets so bad at times, he says, that emergency drivers resort to “suicide mode,” driving down the other side of the street to get around gridlock caused by the road diet. His department is far from alone, as the picture of a Los Angeles Fire Department truck on the (now reversed) Playa del Rey road diet shows.

A LAFD fire engine goes into “suicide mode” to get around road diet gridlock.

Meanwhile, Chief Howard Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Department is on record describing the negative impacts of road diets on his crews’ ability to get from station to scene. The Chief is no anti-bike zealot, in fact quite the opposite: His family owned a bicycle shop when he was growing up, and he was an avid cyclist until an accident rendered him paraplegic (he is the only paraplegic fire chief in the country).

These are the realities caused by the crazed national push for bike infrastructure and road diets. People are dying. Of course, the activists and politicians would rather you not know these uncomfortable realities, which is why they go out of their way to drown out any contrarian information, even when it comes from the very people into whose hands each and every one of us entrusts our safety and even our lives.

It’s worth asking: When it comes to life and death issues, should we trust firefighters, paramedics, cops, and other emergency professionals? Or should we listen to activists, many of whom are paid quite well to further their radical anti-car agenda?

The answer is obvious.

Thoughts on Tiananmen, 30 years later

The “Tank Man” in Tienanmen Square, June 3, 1989

Twenty years ago I was was a young English teacher at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. Located 70 miles southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is the country’s third largest city. It’s also China’s largest port city and the fifth largest deep water port in the world. When I lived there between 1998 and 2000 the place was a capitalist’s dream, with locals and foreigners opening businesses at a head-spinning pace. There was also a surprising – for an American, anyway – degree of freedom. As long as we didn’t touch on The Three T’s – Tibet, Taiwan, and Tienanmen – we foreign teachers could address most any topic.

There was a small section of Nankai’s campus known as “foreigners’ street.” Several restaurants gamely served versions of European and American fare, and there was a shop where you could purchase familiar brands of snacks and essentials along with international versions of the New York Times and Investors Business Daily. The crux of expat life at Nankai was at the end of the street, in a bar and restaurant called Alibaba’s. The restaurant was owned by a Pakistani family, and they served Pakistani, Indian, American, and Chinese food along with Budweiser, Carlsberg, and Heineken beer. There was also a local Tianjin brew called – you can’t make this up – Whiz.

Nothing beats a refreshing bottle of Whiz!

Aside from the fare and camaraderie, a highlight of Alibaba’s was the restaurant’s CNN feed. The internet was in its infancy, smart phones didn’t exist, and connections to the outside world were sporadic at best. Catching the 25 minute international edition of CNN – and hearing James Earl Jones’s familiar booming “This…is CNN” was one of our only connections to home.

Then came the start of April, 1999. As the country prepared for the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre the body politic took a decidedly dark turn. In the second week of the month Alibaba’s CNN feed began experiencing intermittent interruptions. It was cut for good by the end of the month. Around the same time the New York Times and IBD stopped showing up at the shop. International phone calls back home became increasingly difficult, and when we were able to connect at all there was an enormous amount of background noise: Chinese officials wanted us to know we were being monitored.

It wasn’t just the foreigners’ street at the university. After all, the 1989 protests spread to hundreds of cities throughout China and shook the Chinese Communist Party to its core. As the anniversary approached the entire country became tangibly tense. You felt it in places like Datong and Guilin as much as in Tianjin and Beijing. Everyone and everything felt twitchy, off, unsettled. Understandably so: While there were antecedents in Chinese history to the June 4, 1989 massacre in which government soldiers murdered as many as 2,500 civilians, no one in China seemed to know what to expect from this anniversary. Premier Jiang Zemin fell uncharacteristically quiet. The entire country became a hushed place.

Suffice it to say, it was an odd experience for a middle class American. An entire population’s behavior changed. The most surreal part was the silence from official outlets: CCTV continued its usual propaganda and China Daily kept up its daily lambasting of the United States. No one said anything, there were no official orders, but everyone still knew. And everyone seemed afraid. On a day trip to Beijing with two friends we decided to visit the square. For a summer day it was eerily bereft of people. At one point, a man opened an umbrella. He had scrawled messages including “Down with corruption!” and “Remember the brave victims of June 1989!” In an instant he was swarmed by plainclothes police, who seemed to be virtually the only other people in the square besides us. They hustled him into a van, which sped off. I shudder to imagine his fate. One of the police approached a German couple, grabbed their video camera and smashed it to the ground.

Back in Tianjin, in the early morning hours of May 8 those of us living in Nankai’s foreign teachers’ building were awakened by the sounds of shouting and chanting outside. It was a scene out of a movie: A massive thunderstorm was pummeling the city and lighting up the sky with lightening bolts, and amidst the storm we could make out hundreds, then thousands of voices. At around one a.m., from my little balcony I started to see students pouring down the campus’s main road toward the gate.

We gathered in the apartment of a family from Washington state who were the fulcrum of our little community of expat Americans and talked about what to do. As foreigners we were literally locked into the building every night, lest we roam free and foment democracy in the wee small hours. As the sounds of protest grew, however, we decided to bust out. If history was being made we wanted to witness it. Ignoring the cries of the woman whose thankless job was to watch the entrance overnight we broke the lock and ran through the storm toward the protesting students.

The first sign that all was not as we thought came when we reached the university gates and the main boulevard. Many more thousands of people had filled the streets, which were lined with government buses and trucks. It made no sense, and I remember turning to one of the other teachers and asking, “Wait, did the government bus people in to protest itself?” Scores of PLA soldiers and police also filled the streets, some of them joining the protesters.

It was only then that we stopped and actually listened to what the people were shouting. Instead of the expected “Down with corruption,” and “Let the flowers of democracy blossom” (two famous refrains from the 1989 protests) we heard, “Down with America!”

Down with America? What on earth was going on? After all, the late 90s were a good time for U.S.-China relationships. In June 1998 Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to visit China since Tiananmen. When I arrived in Shanghai a month later shop windows were still filled with American flags and full size cardboard cutouts of Clinton himself. Being an American in China at that time was to be something of a curiosity and even a minor celebrity. I lost count of the glasses of beer and cups of tea to which I was treated by locals who just wanted to know more about my country.

As the mood on the street turned increasingly antagonistic a group of my friend’s students walked by. In our best broken Mandarin we asked what was going on. I’ll never forget one girl’s broken English answer: “We are protesting the American attack on our embassy! America has killed three Chinese and declared war on our country!”

A nearby group of clearly intoxicated young men heard the exchange. They began chanting, “War with America! Victory for China! War with America! Victory for China!” Never in my life had I felt so scared and alone. At that moment there was no one within a thousand miles who could have helped us. As the young men confronted us a detachment of police encircled them in turn – and us. After a minute or two of scuffling and shoving the police interceded. We were escorted (I use the term loosely) back down the main campus road and back to our building. That locked front door no longer just kept us inside, it kept the protesters out.

We would spend the next several days locked inside, with armed soldiers providing a protective cordon. Students threw rocks and rotten food at our windows, shattering several and prompting sleepless nights. At one point my roommate – with the best of intentions – went out to the balcony, unfurled an American flag, and gave a peace sign. Unfortunately, the protesting students thought he was giving a victory symbol and went berserk. The university set up a “Talking Wall” around the corner where hundreds of students wrote anti-U.S. messages and drew pictures, including one of Bill Clinton dressed up like Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute. All the while, CCTV maintained a relentless drumbeat of anti-U.S. messaging.

After about a week, it all stopped. It was as if the government had flipped the on switch on May 8, and flipped the off switch on the 15th. Not so much as a hint of protest remained. CCTV and China Daily reverted to form. If there’s such a thing as political whiplash China experienced it.

The United States embassy in Beijing, May 15, 1999

As soon as we were able several of us took the train to Beijing to register with the U.S. Embassy. Suffice it to say there were some panicked family members back home. We discovered that protesters had trashed the building and grounds. Windows were boarded up and a foot-deep layer of garbage covered the ground. Protesters had thrown paint and rotten garbage at the walls. When we arrived we were greeted and quickly escorted inside by Marines in combat gear. I’ve never been more grateful to step foot on U.S. soil.

Many theories have been proffered as to the cause of the U.S. bombing. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright stuck to the official line that the bombing was a mistake attributable to an outdated map. In contrast, an investigation by the UK Guardian concluded the attack was in fact intentional, due to the fact that the Chinese had been providing electronic intelligence assistance to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. There were also suggestions that the Chinese, still decades behind the West militarily, were eager to learn about U.S. cruise missile and stealth technologies (after all, the Serbs successfully downed an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter during the conflict).

Personally I have long suspected another explanation. Except for the Great Cultural Revolution, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and around the country arguably constituted the single most significant political moment in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership of the country. The difference was that the Cultural Revolution began as official government program, whereas the protests were an incredibly rare example of grassroots, democratic activism. They nearly broke the Party.

Moreover, Jiang Zemin came to power as a direct result of the government’s responses to the protests. He emerged as a leader of the hardliners who ultimately prevailed, and barely six weeks after the bloody crackdown he was elevated from Mayor of Shanghai to head of the CCP and military. Few Chinese leaders could have been more sensitive to the anniversary.

Is it possible, then, that the Chinese government intentionally turned their embassy into a military target? After all, it is not difficult to fake electronic signatures such as the ones the Guardian claimed were responsible for the Air Force’s targeting decision. Moreover, even casual observers doubted the “outdated map” excuse from the get-go. In reality the U.S. had detailed, current maps of both military targets and civilian facilities such as hospitals, churches, schools – and diplomatic facilities.

In short, it’s entirely possible that the United States was fooled into providing Jiang Zemin and the entire Chinese leadership with precisely the kind of propaganda they needed to deflect attention – just long enough – from the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen.

Again, I have no proof beyond my experiences in China at the time, the timing of the consulate bombing – and the extraordinarily convenient propaganda opportunity it handed the Chinese government at a time of maximum internal danger.

“Burgergate” bummer for some Mar Vista Neighborhood Council candidates

Logo used with permission.

File this story in the “only in L.A.” section. Every Angeleno knows that there are certain institutions you mess with at your peril: Disneyland. Griffith Park. Fry’s. The Rose Bowl Flea Market. The Lakers (yes, even still). And of course, In-N-Out Burger. A “slate” of candidates in the conflicted Mar Vista Neighborhood Council elections learned that lesson the hard way this weekend. They had tried to pull a fast one on the iconic L.A. chain by hiring its Cookout Truck to serve free burgers to people after they voted on Sunday. Problem was, they apparently lied to the company about the nature of the event, failing to disclose the fact that the truck would be showing up at a local election polling place.

The slate even printed up glossy full color flyers featuring the In-N-Out logo alongside members of the slate, which is what pushed the situation from dubious to unethical.

Logo used decidedly without permission.

You see, there were 26 people running for seats in the election, but the flyers only featured seven of them. The flyers thus made it clear that those seven candidates were responsible for the free burgers, which fact comes uncomfortably close to a suggestion of purchasing votes. Or at the very least, winking and nodding about the situation.

It would have been one thing if the entire Neighborhood Council voted to spend council funds to hire the truck as an incentive for people to come out and vote, or if all 26 candidates had pitched in and gotten their pictures on the flyers. It’s quite something else when a unified slate of insurgent candidates spends their own money and selectively places their own images alongside a supremely valuable corporate logo.

Numerous members of the community as well as the media reached out to In-N-Out’s corporate counsel. While the company did not provide specifics, assistant general counsel Allen McNamee told The All Aspect Report that the individual who signed the contract had failed to disclose it was for a political event:

With respect to the Mar Vista election, In-N-Out did not approve the ad circulated for the June 2 event. At the time of booking, we were not aware that the event was related to a political campaign as it was booked by an individual. In addition, our Cookout Agreement requires that our corporate office approve all promotional materials displaying our logo prior to use. When the ad was brought to our attention, we contacted the person who leased our cookout truck and demanded that our name and logo be removed from all advertisements and social media. We have been informed that our name and logo have been removed.


In-N-Out appears to be both the victim and the good guy here. Ultimately the company pulled out of the event altogether, perhaps realizing they had a potential PR nightmare on their hands. At 6:33 on Friday night Mr. McNamee confirmed to The All Aspect Report that the truck would not appear at the polling place. Sure enough, the Cookout Truck wasn’t within a country mile of the polling place on Sunday.

It bears repeating: Do. Not. Mess. With In-N-Out.

The situation raises several troubling questions. Who paid the $500 deposit for the truck, as required by In-N-Out’s contract? Who was prepared to spend $1,700 to rent the truck for one and a half hours, as well as the cost of the food? What did the individual tell In-N-Out about the event? Did they represent it was a private function, rather than an election? If so, the individual is guilty of fraud.

[Update 6/4/19: According to multiple community members the individual who paid the deposit is a current member of the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council. If confirmed this situation would raise serious additional ethical questions. Stay tuned to The All Aspect Report for updates.]

By the way, the slate, who call themselves Mar Vista Makes Waves, reportedly have received active support from members of Councilman Mike Bonin’s staff. It is understood throughout CD11 that they are his preferred candidates to replace long-serving community leaders and turn the council into a rubber stamp chamber. This kind of meddling by council members in NC elections has become a recurring theme throughout L.A. It’s another chapter in the sad, spiraling tale of corruption that has become the defining theme of the Garcetti Era.

After In-N-Out withdrew due to the contractual violations and outright deceit, the Makes Waves folks scrambled to save face. When the polls opened Sunday morning at the Mar Vista Recreation Center two taco trucks appeared on the far side of the park. Makes Waves candidates and volunteers gamely pointed voters in the general direction of the decidedly sub-par substitutes.

But at least the tacos were free.

Also, the Makes Waves folks are true Bonin disciples, as they didn’t seem to mind the half-naked addict shooting up just a few feet away from where they were campaigning.

Two of Mike Bonin’s candidates with one of his constituents.

As CityWatch’s Ken Alpern reported Friday, when apprised of the situation the City Clerk’s office concluded everything was just fine. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a select slate of candidates paying for the Cookout Truck and a ton of free burgers. Not unethical, not at all.

In-N-Out is more ethical than the City of Los Angeles. Is anyone surprised at this point?

Go to In-N-Out this week and buy a meal to express your gratitude.

[Update 6/3/19: According to sources in the community the L.A. City Attorney’s office called In-N-Out to demand the company cancel the contract as a violation of city law as well as the Neighborhood Council charter. A lawyer in the City Attorney’s office declined to comment, citing attorney client privilege. Stay tuned to The All Aspect Report for further developments.]

This brazen attempt to influence voters in a local election backfired spectacularly. Turns out it’s bad politics to use a company’s valuable logo without permission and in violation of a contract you signed.

In-N-Out taught them a lesson, animal style.

“Vision Zero” is a public safety menace

A tiller rig in Baltimore wedged in a road diet.

The fire crew in Baltimore were trying to make a point. Last summer they sent a nine-minute video to the city council, which subsequently was leaked to local media. According to a story in The Baltimore Fishbowl, the video showed the crew struggling to stage a tiller (hook-and-ladder) truck on a street that had been given a road diet. The city had reconfigured Maryland Avenue and Cathedral Street with protected bike lanes – meaning parallel parking spaces are offset from the curb as buffers. In theory the configuration makes it safer for cyclists.

In reality these sorts of configurations create huge public safety hazards. Speaking on condition of anonymity members of the BFD said that not only did their warnings go unheeded, the crew who made the video received an official rebuke. Astonishingly, the Baltimore City Council subsequently voted to scrap provisions of the fire code related to street clearances for fire apparatus. Those provisions are based on the International Fire Code and are the standard in the vast majority of cities and states.

The Baltimore crew aren’t alone: First responders around the country report that road diets are making their jobs harder, and sometimes impossible. In New York City, firefighters speaking off the record are adamant that road diets make it impossible to stage heavy equipment such as turntable ladders, towers, and tillers. A firefighter in Queens, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that thanks to road diets on Skillman Avenue and 43rd Street, “If you’re on the fifth or sixth floors, we can’t get to you.” And a senior official from the Los Angeles Fire Department said, “Taking away traffic lanes, and drivers’ ability to pull right, impedes emergency response times.”

People around the country have posted images and videos to social media showing emergency equipment bogged down on streets supposedly reconfigured for safety. In one video from Queens a woman exclaims, “It’s been four minutes since my last video, and he hasn’t moved!” In Los Angeles’s Mar Vista neighborhood, these kinds of delays happen literally every day, often multiple times.

What’s more, even as road reconfigurations increase emergency response times they may also be causing more pedestrian deaths. Since Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Vision Zero in L.A. pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled, from 84 in 2015 to 135 in 2017. New York has seen a similar increase in roadway fatalities.

Perversely, politicians and activists use these numbers to argue for more road diets and more bike lanes. They are doubling down on these deadly ideas even as firefighters, cops, and EMTs speak out against them. It’s all the more outrageous considering that many fire departments, including L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, are being actively silenced by elected officials who’ve imbibed the Vision Zero kool-aid.

It isn’t just first responders. Residents around the country are pushing back against the program. The list of communities resisting Vision Zero grows seemingly by the day. Coalitions include Queens Streets for All in New York, Keep Waverly Moving in Iowa, Save 43rd Avenue in Seattle, and Restore Venice Boulevard in L.A., to name a few. With virtually no funding – in contrast to the deep-pocketed activist groups and politicians behind Vision Zero – they are giving voice to the people. Indeed, the resistance to Vision Zero has become a rare example of unity in our divided times, bringing together Manhattan progressives, midwest libertarians, and southern conservatives. Opposition to road diets bands together people who voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with those who cast ballots for Chuck Grassely.

Vision Zero zealots claim the program saves lives and reduces accidents. The actual data tell quite a different story. For example, the Los Angels Department of Transportation claims that the road diet on Venice Boulevard has reduced accidents. Data from the California Highway Patrol SWITRS database debunks that claim: Accidents actually have increased. They were up 19% in the 12 months after the road diet when compared to the 12 months before. Injury accidents were up by a staggering 25% in the same time period. Using the Federal Highway Administration formula to account for the drop in traffic volume attributable to the road diet, accidents increased by 36% and injury accidents increased by 44%. Looking back 5 years accidents were 24% higher than the historical average. Injury accidents were up by a whopping 33% over the 5 year average. Numbers from other cities are similar.

A series of fires ravaged Paradise, Magalia, and surrounding communities in northern California in 2008. As 40,000 residents fled, evacuations ground down to gridlock. Some 600 structures burned and at least one death was attributed to the fire. In the aftermath, a Butte County grand jury recommended widening roads in the area. Unfathomably, the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG) released a report called the Skyway Corridor Study, which recommended a series of road diets in Paradise. Instead of widening roadways the County narrowed all the main evacuation routes, including the only four-lane highway connecting the mountain communities with the city of Chico.

The result was as tragic as it was foreseeable. During last year’s Camp Fire, the largest in California history, road diets turned Paradise into a kill zone. Interviews with dozens of survivors confirm that thanks in part to the reconfigurations, thousands of people became trapped on the roads as they tried to escape. Jennifer Porter, an emergency room nurse, relates a horrific scene in which she had to abandon her car and literally run through the flames. A woman who had seen it all in her job broke down in tears describing watching several people burn alive in their cars. Paradise city councilman Michael Zuccolillo had spent two years before the fire trying to reverse the road diets, to no avail. Another survivor said of the road diets, “We wondered what on Earth they were thinking.”

The Camp Fire was the perfect firestorm, and road diets were not what lawyers would call the “but for” cause of deaths. Survivors agree, however, that the narrowed roads absolutely contributed to the carnage.

In the face of overwhelming evidence and statistics politicians and activists nevertheless continue their Vision Zero campaign in the name of safety. In Sonoma County, California, officials have approved a series of road diets on the very thoroughfares thousands of people used to escape the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Shasta County is dieting roads used as evacuation routes during the Thomas Fire. Perversely, the program is called “Shasta Living Streets.”

There is a war for the streets of America. On one side are firefighters, cops, EMTs, small business owners, and average citizens. On the other is a tiny but extravagantly funded cabal of paid activists, politicians, property developers, and corporations. Under the mantle of progress they want to revert the country – for that matter, the world – to 19th century modes of transit like trains and bicycles. Yet the outcomes of their ideology are precisely the opposite of what they promise. Instead of safety they cause death. Instead of reduced emissions they create pollution and smog. Instead of mobility they cause gridlock.

People around the country are waking up to the reality of Vision Zero. It’s a bad idea whose time will be fleeting. The only remaining question is how many more people will suffer.

In California, politics are endangering public safety and costing lives

Ideology at work

A bombshell report from the City of Los Angeles Fire Department reveals that during the 2018 Woolsey Fire in Malibu, the rich and famous got special treatment at the expense of everyone else. Though the report has not yet been made public (we have requested it from the LAFD) the Los Angeles Times was given the following quote from it: “A significant number of requests by political figures to check on specific addresses of homes to ensure their protection distracted from Department leadership to accomplish priority objectives.”

Conversations with multiple senior officials at fire departments around L.A. County confirmed the city’s elite have received various kinds of special treatment during emergencies, not just additional layers of response. For example, some wealthy homeowners in Malibu, Calabasas, and elsewhere hire private contractors to protect their properties. Among other strategies these contractors spray fireproof gel onto homes. The problem is that the their equipment can end up fighting for precious road and shoulder space with city, county, and Cal Fire equipment. Despite the fact that the contractors violate evacuation zones, no official action has been taken to control them. One official described some of them as acting like “entitled cowboys.”

The stories out of Malibu are just one part of a deeply troubling trend in Los Angeles and across California: Political decisions are hurting emergency responses and public safety, with increasingly catastrophic – not to mention deadly – consequences. The All Aspect Report previously has reported on the sequence of political decisions that contributed to the destruction and death of last November’s Camp Fire in Butte County. After the disastrous 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, a county grand jury investigation concluded the region’s narrow roads contributed to gridlock during evacuations. Mercifully no one died in that fire, but the grand jury recommended widening the shoulders of certain roads and keeping them clear of debris.

Inexplicably, the Butte County Association of Governments made a political decision to ignore the report. As part of the state’s “Complete Streets” initiative – which envisions roads and streets as not just for cars, but transit, bicycles, scooters, skateboards, and pedestrian traffic – BCAG actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads and intersections in Paradise. When the next fire came through the results were predictably catastrophic. While the road reconfigurations were not the sole cause of gridlock that contributed to at least 88 deaths and the destruction of some 14,000 homes and businesses, they absolutely played a role. As one survivor, an emergency room nurse who fled the flames on foot, said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the hell they were thinking.”

Skyway Boulevard in Paradise during the 2018 Camp Fire.

Despite the experiences during the Camp Fire, the pressure from Sacramento and city halls continues to mount on fire fighters, police, and other first responders around the state. Counties including Shasta, Sonoma, Marin, Santa Cruz, and others continue to introduce more complete streets, “road diets,” and other changes that dramatically impact responses. Even when presented with irrefutable evidence, political leaders double down. Just this week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city’s version of the “Green New Deal.” Among its many goals is to reduce the number of miles Angelenos drive every day from 15 to 6. It’s clear by now the only way to accomplish that is to continue to narrow streets and roads, create congestion, and force people out of their cars. In the meantime, what’s a few heart attack or crash victims?

Nothin’ to see here, folks….

Political malfeasance also is behind the state’s spiraling homeless crisis. Earlier this year, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin (West L.A.) was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong, it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.” The quote, which was widely ridiculed in the community and on social media, encapsulates the vast chasm between politicians and reality in California.

Out in the San Fernando Valley, community members have contacted Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez numerous times to ask that something be done about the homeless who camp in the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains. Lydia Grant, Vice President elect of the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council, says “The homeless start fires every week, sometimes everyday. We’ve had three this week, and it isn’t even fire season yet.” Thus far, the community’s pleas to their Councilwoman have fallen on deaf ears.

Political decisions also are worsening crime. City councils around California, as part of their ideological efforts to “de-criminalize” homelessness, have reduced many felonies to misdemeanors. The state legislature, meanwhile, passed a measure forbidding prosecution of property crimes valued under $850. Newly-minted Governor Newsom unilaterally suspended the death penalty. Not to be outdone, the judiciary – including the Ninth Circuit – have issued a series of decisions making it all but impossible for law enforcement to deal with minor crimes at all.

The results of this collective political abdication are everywhere: Hundreds of thousands of Walking Dead homeless, rampant petty crime, terrified residents. Ambulances stranded on “complete streets” while victims suffer.

A reckoning is coming to California. It may be the next wildfire, or a disease outbreak in a homeless camp that spreads to the general population. If things don’t change, and change quickly, California will continue to pay dearly while our political leaders tilt at ideological windmills.