Austin Beutner wants to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. His perspective, the vision behind his strategy for the future economic health of city, is one I share -
Innovative Angelenos have reinvented our city’s economy many times throughout its history. We became the world’s entertainment capital in the 1920s, a large oil producer in the ‘40s, the center of television and technology in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We led in aerospace and defense throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. These industries provided good-paying jobs and the foundation for a way of life that became the envy of the world. Today, we need a strategy to build a new foundation for our economy—a foundation that will again foster the innovation and opportunity that’s needed to create good, sustainable jobs.
- so I asked him to sit down with me to talk about his ideas for the city (in the interest of full disclosure, we are acquainted.) I limited my questions to areas of particular interest to me and my readers, things which I care deeply about and about which I am informed. You are not going to find questions related to sewers or police funding or pensions. Nothing about the intricacies of local traffic patterns or how long it's actually going to take for the whole Wilshire/Sepulveda/405 mess to be completed. These are important issues and I trust that you, engaged citizens that you are, will take the time to read up on them (and the many issues that affect life in Los Angeles) as the election approaches, but I chose different things to explore here. My hope is that you will get to know something more about candidate Beutner through questions that veer a little bit from those in a typical interview.
First, a little background: Austin Beutner is originally from Michigan, the son of a public school teacher and a manufacturing engineer. He graduated with an economics degree from Dartmouth in 1982, went into finance and became, at 29, the youngest ever partner at The Blackstone Group. In the early 1990s Beutner took a position in the State Department under the Clinton Administration, serving in Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union he led a team that helped the country transition to a market economy. He returned to the financial world in 1996, co-founding the investment banking firm Evercore Partners.
Austin and his family have lived in LA for over 10 years. During that time they have sunk deep roots into the community. He serves as the Chairman of the Board of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and Co-Chairman of the CalArts Community Arts Partnership. He is also the Chairman of the Governors Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and is the Founder and Chairman of the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation. In 2010, Austin took a full-time position as LA's first Deputy Mayor and Chief Executive of Economic and Business Policy, positions which came with a salary of $1 a year. His approach to the city's economic problems is "do more with less" and while this strategy has won him friends and admirers, it may also have raised some hackles, especially when he went after waste and general chaos at the DWP.
Austin is a soft spoken man with a no-nonsense manner. He's a good man - I've seen him with his kids - and he may initially strike some as too mild for the dog-eat-dog world of politics. But I'll tell you something you would discover for yourself in about 30 seconds - he's as tough as they come. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
A Driveable Feast (ADF) - I want to start by asking what you think City Hall can and should do to keep film and television production in LA. People unfamiliar with the economic reality of the situation often say something like "Why should I support a tax credit so some movie star can earn 5 million dollars?" But that perception isn't accurate. According to the economic impact study done on the Television and Film Tax Credit, enacted in 2009 "During the first two years of the program, (the tax credit) has generated more than $3.8 billion in economic output and is supporting more than 20,000 jobs in California. This activity will return to state and local governments an estimated $201 million. Further, the vast majority of these jobs (more than 75%) are what are called below-the-line jobs, that is, crew jobs: hair and makeup, electricians, truck drivers, props people, cooks and on and on. I know jobs are your priority. What do you believe should be the Mayor's role in keeping production related jobs in Los Angeles?
Austin Beutner ( AB) - Here is an example of the issues we have around the industry. There was a show called 24, I haven't seen the show but it goes around the clock and when it's at night you have to shoot at night, right? ( me - you don't have to but it's more difficult to shoot day for night, and the final product doesn't look as good.) They came to the city and said "we want to shoot here" and the city said "fine but you have to be off the streets by 10:30." Well, that didn't work for that show and they went to New York. Those in the city who heard their request didn't think. They didn't say "How do we solve your problem." They just said "no," 10:30, some silly rule "10:30." I believe we need to put people in those jobs who understand the needs of the industry so that when you come as a producer and you say "this is what I'm trying to do" instead of just responding to the narrow answer (that person can) say, "Okay, I think I can get you to here," or "Here's an alternate solution," or "Would this work." And find a way to get to "Yes." Don't look at our rules. Look at the constituents needs and find a way to solve it.
This story about 24 made me wonder. It is especially challenging to shoot night scenes in Los Angeles because, for much of the peak TV shooting season, it stays light out until 9pm. That doesn't leave much time to get work done if you have to be off the streets by 10:30. How many other productions have been impacted but that just that one rule?
ADF - So what about the tax credit program? Do you think the current program should be extended? (In the time since we spoke the program has been extended for another year. Expect more political fighting beginning next August. )
AB - The incentive program we have is a really small program. If you look at it, what we have now is not comprehensive, it's not doing the job. In part it's not doing the job because if you go to Sacramento and you say I want to support "film in LA" you've given Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego etc. every reason to sit it out. "Film - LA" those are 2 words, you string them together and (other cities) say "we don't care about this. Why should we use state resources for just one part of the state?" But if you think more broadly, it's not just LA. It's technology from the north, technology from San Diego. It's a business that the whole state will benefit from. And it's not movie star jobs. It's the makeup artist who makes $42,000 a year and it's a restaurant that feeds the cast and crew. We haven't marketed it properly. We haven't demonstrated the economic benefit throughout our state. It's not just our community, it's the state as a whole. I don't think we've strategically pursued it the right way. So we need to broaden the program. And we need to make sure it's an appropriate balance. We can't just win the race to the bottom by giving away money. We need to make sure we get a good return.
ADF - Well, the report shows a good return. The report shows $1.06 out for every $1 in.
AB - I think we can do better than that.
ADF - I think we probably can too but I'm asking if you are willing to put political muscle behind the program as it exists now. There are people who are going to fight it. Who are going to go against it and say they want much less in terms of tax credits or other economic incentives for keeping the industry here. They don't see the value of doing it or they do see the value but they play politics with it, act like it's a big movie star thing that has no effect on middle class jobs.
AB - Oh, absolutely. But my point is we need to put more political muscle behind it to make a program that really serve the needs of the industry. And we need to realize that the creative industry is more than just entertainment. If you think longer term historically - why did all the auto design studios come to Los Angeles a generation ago? For that same creative energy. The designers, the cool people, the hip people. This is where taste was set. But look what's happened over the last 10 or 15 years. We've dissipated some of that.
ADF - I think it goes directly to the business climate you were talking about. I think it goes directly to the vibrancy of Los Angeles. To the perception of Los Angeles both internally and to the larger world.
AB - It's (the creative spirit) one of the defining things that made Los Angeles great and we're frittering it away.
For more information on film and TV production in Los Angeles check out Film Works LA and Shoot Movies in California. And do keep updated on this issue. If you live in LA, this issue effects you. What is good for the local entertainment business is, in general, good for the city's economy as a whole.
ADF - I have read that you are a bike rider.
ADF - Were you involved with the bike plan? What do you think about it? There's a strong community of bicyclists here but it's not easy to be a bike rider in LA.
AB - It (biking) should become part of our lifestyle, it's going to help our environment, help those who wish to be active, it's going to help bring people together. The plan is the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot more that we need to be doing.
ADF - And you will be supporting this? It's been passed but now it needs to be funded. There's going to be a fight in this economy to - and this is the way it will be spun - "spend money on bike lanes."
AB - Absolutely, but I think we need to be looking at not just bike lanes. We are crazy not to be doing this. We are one of the least bike friendly communities in the world with the best climate, with people who need to be active. You think about this more broadly, the problems in society, obesity and it makes no sense. I rode my bike downtown when I was working down there. Boy, try that sometime. It's a nightmare. Why can't we make it easier?
City cyclists seem to like what they hear about Beutner's support for safe biking.
ADF - I have another question that goes to that, to creating a healthier city overall. You're familiar with the term "food desert?" ( he nods) You know we have 3X the number of grocery stores here on the Westside than they have in south LA? At the same time, health care and lost productivity costs to the county from obesity and overweight are more than 6 billion annually (source). One way to bring those numbers down is to help people in low income neighborhoods have better access to healthy foods.
AB - I have been the chairman of CA. Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports now for 6 or 7 years. We have a misinformed view of how impacted our young people in particular are with obesity. A generation ago Californians were the healthiest, fitness community in the country. Now we're Mississippi, we're Alabama. We're down at the bottom. We've got to change behavior, lifestyle and people's accessibility to good nutrition. But I think the place where we have the most leverage is with the behavior of our children. I encourage you to read a book called Spark by John Ratey. It's written by a professor of neurology. I mean, put it by your bedside table, it's not a thriller...
ADF - maybe 2 pages a night...
AB - ...right. But there's a chapter on schools, one school in particular in Naperville, Il where, I'm going to paraphrase, but basically one day the P.E. teacher was sitting around watching basketball, and asked the question "why do we have 25 kids sitting around watching 1 kid learn how to shoot a free throw. How about we get everybody active?" And this guy was a real zealot. Convinced everybody to become active. So the goal now is to get everybody active. You can still play basketball if you want, but if not you can walk, you can dance. Whatever it is that will get you active. A year later they did testing and below the neck, everything, all the physiology was better, as you might expect. But the test scores went up measurably. The behavior was better. So this issue is a double bottom line. Yes there are health issues; diabetes, arthritis and the money we have to spend to treat these things. But healthier, more active kids are going to learn. Actually John Chiang (CA State Controller) and I are pioneering a program, this fall it's going to be in 12 schools. We're giving the schools the tools to make kids active. The beauty of this one is it's free. It's not free to me and John because we are putting in time and resources. But it's not one of those where you have to increase the school budget, decrease the school budget, fight with people. But you look at this and you say; we can do this.
ADF - Well, that sounds great, but getting back to the disparity of access, in terms of helping people have better access to good nutrition, making it easier in their neighborhoods. We need economic incentives for this, to get more stores in there, healthier options. And we need to make it easier to get permits for Farmer's Markets.
AB - We need easier permits yes, but I'm not sure we need economic incentives. If you look at the demographics of some of our inner city neighborhoods - I am a person who is invested all over the world, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mumbai, South LA. And the economics look very similar. The spending power is there. If you talk to Irvin Johnson about his Starbucks investments in urban areas, they are very successful. What we've got to do is make those neighborhoods accessible to people who will invest there. Work with them. Solicit their interest. And show them the data.
ADF - But you don't think businesses are going to ask for economic incentives to take what they see as a risk? Let's say you talk to the chair person of Ralph's and you say "there aren't enough big markets, we need several big markets." And he says "I'm not going in there, nobody is going to shop there and it's dangerous." What do you say? How do you get them in there?
AB - I talk to the chair person of Ralph's, I say "Listen, you are misinformed. Local businesses can be very successful here and the neighborhoods are safe. And we'll work with you, we have partners in law enforcement, partners in community groups." We'll work with them. And I'll show them the data. Look at the folks at Fresh and Easy, they are making money. The data is there. People buy food. Right now they have to take a bus to buy food because they have to go outside their neighborhoods. So I say "let me show you how you can make money here, what this neighborhood spends on groceries. You can make money." We as a city need to ask how can we bring those investment dollars into these areas. We need to do a better job of communicating the opportunity that's there.
ADF - And you believe that? No economic incentives are necessary, people are misinformed and going in to those areas would be a good business decision?
AB - We can demonstrate that it's a good business decision.
I was skeptical so I looked into this after our conversation and indeed, the statistics reflect Beutner's point. Click here for the Community Health Council's report: From Food Desert to Food Oasis. As an example - total annual food spending in the 24 zip code, 91 square mile area referred to as South LA is $ 2,000,701,120. The dollars are there.
ADF - Are you aware of the small, very small program, a pilot program I think, that funds videos on city buses, videos that teach about good nutrition and healthy eating? It's only on like 3 or 4 buses but there is data showing that these are effective, in terms of teaching people how to make healthier decisions. What do you think about city dollars to more widely distribute such a program?
AB - I think there is a whole broader conversation that needs to happen about making sure communities have the right support.
ADF - Do you think that something like that is a good investment? Again, is it something you think is worth the city's money?
AB - I don't even think it's about the city's money. You need the city to convene and lead. The resources exits. There are some great organizations with resources. Whether it's the California Community Foundation or the Federal Health Program, the dollars exist. It doesn't have to be city money but it has to be city effort. If nothing else, governments are great conveners. We can bring people together. We can bring organizations together. That's what governments can do.
ADF - And how important would that be, that bringing together, in your administration?
AB - I look at communities as the foundation of Los Angeles. Communities where kids can go to school and get an education, a good education, where parents and kids can find good work, and where the environment is healthy and sustainable. If you tie all those together, it can work. But you need them all, not just 1 or 2. These are vital. The economic opportunity in the neighborhood is vital. If you don't have good education in your own neighborhood, and you have chronic unemployment, you don't have a tax base or a sustainable family unit. And you have to support that with what the public sector is meant to provide. A healthy environment, a safe environment, access to public transportation, more bikes or whatever it is.
ADF - Right, it's all of it. But people don't want to pay for things.
AB - My point is people are already paying.
ADF - Well, we're already paying when we're paying $41 billion dollars in health care costs.
AB - Yes. But I mean we're already paying with other resources the city has that it's not spending wisely. We have the money. We don't have to raise taxes to do any of these things. It speaks to the point about a path to a job. While with the city I created a pilot program for auto tech interns. We listened to auto dealers saying "We can't find trained entry level people." And we thought that's kind of odd because there's such high unemployment. So what did we do? We brought community colleges and dealers together, made them understand they had to adapt a little bit, colleges had to change curriculum slightly, dealers had to be a little more more accessible. The program needed no additional money. We used resources we already had more sensibly. We started by convening. Now trained people are graduating from colleges and getting good jobs. It's working.
A more detailed interview about this program can be found here, in an interview done on public radio station KPCC.
My final question for Beutner is about the arts and how to strengthen community support for our arts organizations. This is an issue of great importance to me because, as a student, though I often felt like an idiot in math class, I felt amazing in drama and choir. It was not in the science lab but on the stage and, later, on the page, that I first began to discover who I was and what my place in the world might be. There are thousands of LA students whose intelligence and abilities are not reflected by their math scores, but who shine if given the chance to sing or dance or paint or write. Yet as school budgets continue to be cut, it's arts classes that go. The community - local government, private organizations and individuals - must pick up the slack to support and fund arts programs and institutions, especially those that positively impact kids. As mentioned above, Beutner chairs the boards of both The Broad Stage and CalArts. Additionally, at CalArts, he and his wife, Virginia, have established a $1million scholarship fund for "excellence in the arts", providing funding for students in their final year of study. I wondered about his thoughts for city hall in this area.
ADF - One last question. I know you and Virginia are big supporters of the arts. I wish more of the wealthy members of our community would engage in the same way. What is City Hall's role here?
AB - I don't think people understand the importance of the arts. Arts make people whole. They make our community whole. I am most interested in the arts as an educational tool because it gives people a voice, which some people don't find until their adult life but they find it first through the instrument they play, or they find a way to relate socially to others, or to engage with their community. And the creativity of the arts as an adult life skill goes back to what we were talking about with the film and entertainment industry. It's a part of what makes a community dynamic. I am a firm believer in it. I think the city has a vital role in making sure that the institutions that are supporting the arts are seen as a valid constituency so their needs are met in the same way that a neighborhood's needs are met, or a business interest's needs are met.
That ends our conversation. I thanked Austin for his time and I thank you for yours. For further information and to submit your ideas for a better LA to the candidate, click over to Austin Beutner's campaign website here.