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Morality and the Political Economy: Interview with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

By: Brock Goleman

HER staff writer Brock Goleman conducted an interview with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation.

How has LA been doing during the pandemic?

I am more optimistic than I’ve been in two years and more exhausted than I have ever been in my life. I have seen the courage, the compassion, as well as the trauma and the testing of the last two years, but I am optimistic in general. As the Mayor of LA, I think that Los Angeles is this very special place poised to lead us both materially and morally out of the darkness.

I think we are doing relatively well. Before the pandemic, we saw really strong growth here, and an unemployment rate that dropped from about 10 percent to 4 percent in 6 years and it’s outpacing our state and country. Interestingly, Bloomberg News said that Los Angeles is the top city in the country right now coming out of the pandemic, based on the pace at which we are adding jobs and the valuation of our publicly traded companies. On those metrics, we were number one in California, and number one in the country. Although we are recovering faster than cities and states like Texas, New York, Illinois, and twice the pace of California, we still have our challenges, from our education system to our housing stock. So, I always call LA an imperfect paradise. I would say that the rays of sun are certainly breaking through the clouds.

That’s great to hear, Mr. Mayor. Based on your experience with the strong role that government plays in shaping the economy, how would describe how morality influences economics?

I think economics is always about morality, but I think morality influences economic policy more than economics as a field of study. To study economics bereft of morality is to be a scientist without the social side. We’re social creatures and all our economic policies reflect our values and our morality. So, I have always tried to preach from the choir that a budget is a moral document, that policies and the moving of resources reflect our deepest moral impulses and that we need to help ensure resources get to those who don’t have them. I know that everybody talks about equity more than equality. Equity is critically important and has guided most everything I have done, but equality is ultimately our goal. Not meaning all people are exactly equal, but the idea that at least we can start with or have access to similar resources. Those who have challenges can have additional ones to be able to overcome such as the health, educational, geographic, and social difficulties that we face. I do not think I have had a single day where I have not engaged in economic policy where my starting point in any point is not morality.

In the 50’s, through World War II, the great boom of the 90’s, the United States was respected for ideas of freedom, humanitarianism, economic empowerment, and morality. Do you think that the United States still has that as a strong point?

Well, I think that countries (which are difficult to make into single people), and the people of the world, even leaders of other countries are usually attracted to two things. One is the strength of a country, and the other are the values of the countries. So, in some ways, others look at how rich and how strong you are. In other ways, they ask what you are about and what culture you have. I think that during the 1950’s, when many admired the United States, we had segregated schools and farm workers who were dying, and same sex marriage wasn’t allowed. So, I think it all depends on who’s perspective we are engaged in. On the flip side though, I still deeply believe that America is a force for good. I do think that we can be respected among the community of nations.

I think the Biden Administration, for me, is really trying to re-insert morality where we kind of had amorality before. A lot of people thought it was immorality, I think there was amorality. Make whatever deal, you can flip on a friend, you can embrace an enemy, when people suddenly said, well morality was the one thing that distinguished the United States. We are a state in search of a nation, not a nation in search of a state. In other words, we are not one culture, so we have always been trying to define who we are as a people even though we know what the borders and the institutions are, and laws of our state are. We are now looking to at least re-engaged morality, as imperfect as that is, to stand up. That is an important value. There’s a democracy summit going on as we speak that the White House is leading. Speaking out on human rights, religious freedoms, which is something that is still quite bipartisan. To in other words, say that we are not just about trying to get the best deal and the most wealth for America, we also want to see a world in which the United States is a force for something good and standing up for those who face oppression.

Mayor Garcetti, when it comes to the growth of American cities and the economy, I’m an optimist. Yet, there is much in society that is troubling. Let’s call it “immoral economics” like crime, war, poverty, deceit, and disorder that can loom large as they aim to gain the mantle of society. This is part of the larger picture that goes along with moral implementation of the good of government to go forward into the future toward a goal. From your position as the Chief Executive of Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, do you feel a lasting peaceful type of society can be achieved from a moral strategy, or do you see trouble down the road? As we call it, “The Battle for L.A.,” a monstrous return of riots, missiles, and things like that.

I think in Los Angeles we have a couple of very strong moral values. Often, maybe more than 9 out of 10 times, people have a sense that this is a city of belonging. I use that word because it is more powerful than being just about diversity or inclusion, but a sense of belonging is a sense of ownership, a sense of equality. Therefore, even when we have conflict, underneath that, at least 9 out of 10 people think that we all belong here across culture, ethnicity, immigration status, race, age, ability. Los Angeles is a place that is sunny, both literally and figuratively. So, we live with optimism, but we are not naive either. I do not know if a lasting peace is something that human beings will ever have.

A perfect imperfection, as you said earlier.

It is just like the Nation. It was Renan who wrote, “the nation is a daily plebiscite.” In other words, we can say the nation is there, but every day we must do our work on it. I would say the same thing in building peace. That it must be daily. We saw that when the pandemic hit us, and an American man was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis. Suddenly, we saw how fragile peace can be. People are convinced by anger to work things out. Sometimes it is a righteous anger and sometimes it’s a non-righteous anger, but I would say the deepest thing we have to do as a society is at least share some trust in facts, some trust in institutions, and some common process for working out our differences. My greatest fear is that people will have different sets of facts, that they will not embrace the same values and that they will not even have a process to work out difference, but just plant their flags and never leave them. We know places where this mob mentality thrives the most, from social media, from sometimes our broadcast news, from maybe the street protests. Every single day I witness people who want to listen to each other, who want to compromise, and who want to sacrifice some of their own power to build a greater society.

How can executives maintain moral influence within their departmental oversight; with the G.M.s, commissioners, department heads, etc.? Especially in an imperfectly perfect world, how can they maintain good influence despite having such power?

Well, you know the old maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There’s some truth to that, but I also think, I would also be more nuanced. I think that if people want to be stupid there’s almost nothing you can do to stop them, but what you can do is build a culture, a culture of morality, of humility. I always tell people four things. Be fearless, which is important to find and exercise power. My second thing is always to be humble. You’re not the center of the universe, I do not care what your title is, you know my favorite title is? "It’s Maya’s dad, not Mayor of L.A.", and it is important to know, as my father taught me, you only have these titles for a short period of your life, so they are not to be abused. Hopefully, people can learn from those who have abused that and paid the price. A third I saw, learn to listen. I think that is an important piece. You maintain moral influence by channeling what you hear from your constituency, or in my case my city. Forth, it is great to be fearless and humble and learn how to listen but if you do not lead with love, it means nothing. You can insert those skills into being an amoral or immoral person, but you must bring that idea of your fellow human being having worth and deserving of your love and acts of love to make sure you are not abusing your power.

What are your thoughts on the economics of budgeting?

Budgeting is an economic and moral enterprise. It ultimately reflects who you are. For instance, this year, we put out what we call The Justice Budget. I did not want people to think this was just about how many pencils are being ordered by our librarians or how many potholes we are filling. I wanted it to say that this budget at this moment was a time to build racial justice, right to housing, reimagining of our police and public safety. For example, if we say that we do not want a violent society, we must invest in nonviolent options. If we want to have a healthier world for all of us, we must take the lead on climate change, and this climate emergency. So, I think that I framed it around a justice budget that did everything from the largest guaranteed income pilot in the country, to investing in mental health workings rolling out, to 911 calls when someone is walking around naked on the street who is going through a mental health emergency instead of someone with a badge that may trigger them. To me, everything we spend money on reflects what we believe in. I think that people who think budgeting is boring or just look at it from a detached perspective are not getting budgeting right.

Those people would also be missing out on the constituent engagement and political consequences therein involved and how that tends to sway your morality.

That is exactly right. People see if you are a good leader, you reflect the very best of people back at them. Bad leaders either cannot do that, or they claim it is their morality that their giving to the people. I think it is more difficult to do the first, but if you can listen to your city, you hear the shared values that have deep morality. Then you can act upon them so people can be reminded of that. For instance, during the pandemic, a lot of people could have easily just stayed at home. COVID was just starting to rage, and we did not know how it was spreading. Yet, that idea that you knocked on the door of your senior neighbor whose name you did not even know and offer to bring her food took kind of a courage. It also ultimately reflects what leadership is about and reminded our city how good our hearts can be.

Mayor Garcetti, I find Executive Order 22 A Resilient L.A. to be your finest strategy in terms of a legacy. I’m partial to my own favorites, but is there anything else your most proud of in terms of your entire work?

I think two things. One is that I hope economic growth can come with expanding economic opportunity, starting with those most behind. I try not to live with too much pride, but I’m very satisfied with the courage this city showed during COVID. We were the first city to close places of gathering, the first city to mandate masks, the first city to cut the racial death gap to zero. We were able to be the first city to test people without symptoms, to go into nursing homes, the list goes on and on. Most of those things had tremendous opposition when we first did them but looking back, you cannot count the living you can only count the loss. I know that tens of thousands of people are alive today because of those decisions. So, it is probably, at the end of my days, the thing I will be most proud to have been alongside for.

The rising cost of living has become an epidemic in L.A., so how do you see this working out for people? Will the housing crises ever be solved?

California is an interesting place because it is one of the only states where you can insert the state name and put “The American Dream” after it, and people understand what you are talking about. In other words, there is the American Dream, but people know here, the California Dream. It is not like people do not have the Kansas Dream or the Montana Dream—they very much do. The California Dream was sunshine, good jobs, good schools, and abundant housing. While we still have great sunshine and great jobs, our housing crises threatens the California Dream. We simply must build more housing than we ever have before. I have tried to lead by example. I do believe that it is solvable, but it will not turn around in a year or two. It will take a decade or two. We are constructing triple the amount of housing each year in Los Angeles than we did when I started. We have been innovative by making it easy to build granny flats or accessory dwelling units so that those types of housing can explode here. We are changing zoning to say that it is not just about single-family homes. As much as we love those, it is not going to destroy a neighborhood to put two or even four units of housing on that single family lot. It may save the livability of our city.

Before, L.A. was all about sprawl, and everybody still got a back yard. Now, nobody can afford a backyard. So, unless your wealthy or your parents give you the home it is very difficult for young people in the workforce to imagine their life here. L.A. city is not some contained island, we're part of a larger housing market, so what we need now is to make sure all our neighboring cities and counties do the same thing as we do. I do think that you see, and you hear in the advocacy of younger Californians that they are not going back, they know that it is not going to be about a more sprawling subdivision; it is going to be about building a proper city up.

Ok, new downtowns. I look forward to that. What is your take on U.S. citizens’ mindset for the next 100 years? Envious for the outside world, the Taipei 101s and the Burj Khalifahs, or many more domestic prosperity?

I have no idea because technology and megatrends I think are right now in this soup that is just stewing on the stove. I’ll tell you my hope, because I’m always weary of trying to predict where were going be 100 years from now. I hope that Americans will understand that we have something sacred and special. We are at our best when we are in an inclusive entrepreneurial place. To some on the right, to be an inclusive country is tough. For folks on the left, sometimes being an entrepreneurial place is tough. But really that is what has helped us. If we can be an even more frictionless economy, but a fairer one too, we can see a country that’s a shining example; that outcompetes everybody, that inspires everybody, that welcomes everybody to a nation where they belong. It's bad if we get more tribal and close ourselves off, and I do not just mean that from one side of the spectrum. Obviously, if we become anti-immigrant, or if we do not welcome the world’s best and brightest to study, work, and ultimately live here, we will suffer. But also, on the other end of the spectrum, if we think were always right about things, we don’t recognize that well-intentioned policies sometimes are like stones in your backpack; each one of them on its own is beautiful, but a heavy backpack restrains you and allows others to win the battles for artificial intelligence, space, micro-processing, and all of that. We must hang on to both of those. I hope U.S. citizens’ mindset will come together instead of being ripped apart and manipulated by either outside or inside actors. I hope that we will continue to be a place where the best ideas blossom.

Do you have a favorite economist or moralist?

I don’t think I have one. People like Peter Singer and concepts like effective altruism speak to me. The obligation of those who have more to stop suffering. Amartya Sen, and the idea of capability: we have the capability to provide plenty for everyone in the world, but it is a problem of distribution and logistics. There are also other moralists, whether it is Rigoberta Menchu or Bob Marley. Rigoberta Menchu said the world is not going to change unless were willing to change ourselves. Bob Marley said, “None but ourselves can free our minds.” I am a big believer in introspection. Good intentions are not enough.

Do have a favorite California politician from the past, an inventor, or another influencer whose ideas, efforts, or actions positively affect the economy?

I think Jerry Brown was a great, influential governor in my life. He was incredibly progressive. He was a tight wad who also laid down and saved that money to spend it on the infrastructure that is changing our state, both in his first incarnation and his second incarnation as Governor. He really had influence. The other person is a woman named Boga Gebre, a dear friend of mine who passed a year and a half ago. She was an Ethiopian immigrant to Los Angeles. She went back to Ethiopia to end the practice of cutting girls to become women, but she engaged in it from an economic perspective. She had to sit down with the male elders and the female elders of the town and say, “What is going on in this town?” Through that, she was able to stop the horrific practice of cutting girls. She approached it by engaging with people where they are materially. To me, that is the lesson, you cannot just start with big ideas, you must meet people where they are, even if we do not always like where somebody might be.

Humor is a necessary moral attribute for leadership. Due to the serious nature of political economy, audiences do not always gain access to a politician’s persona. In an interview you did with Interview Magazine titled Mr. Mayor, What Are Your Thoughts on Good Charlotte and Charcoal Water?, readers were able to witness your fun personality. What is your go to comedy movie?

My go to comedy movie is definitely Airplane. In fact, when I was asked at the beginning of my time as mayor to do a screening of my favorite movie, my whole staff gave me a list of things to choose, like Chinatown, and profound L.A. movies over the years. My favorite movie is Airplane. They were like, “You can’t say that!” When I went and did a screening with the three writers and director, they gave me a poster that is still one of my prized possessions. They said they didn't know what scares them the most, that my favorite movie is Airplane, or that somebody whose favorite movie is Airplane is running the city of Los Angeles.

Finally, what would you suggest readers turn to for moral support in troubling times?

For moral support in troubling times, I would read dark chapters of history to realize we have been through much worse before. Then, I would turn to your neighbor who you have not met and start a conversation.


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