FEAR, UNCERTAINTY, AND DOUBT

 Laurence Eubank and Elizabeth Van Denburgh

In nature, the first law of survival is ‘don’t become food’. In politics, the first law of winning is ‘go negative’. The same principle is at work: fear – our strongest, most urgent emotion – rules.

Political consultants live off this basic instinct, crafting election campaigns to develop, mould, and exploit voter anxiety. Paint an apocalyptic scenario, a catastrophe in the making, and voters will run from it, into the arms of the alternative.

There’s no better place than the Santa Monica 2016 ballot initiatives to see this technique at work, especially in the ferocious fight developing over Measure LV – the Land Use Empowerment Initiative, better known by its acronym, LUVE.

Opponents have zeroed in on ‘safety’, i.e., the fear of disaster, as a compelling reason to reject LUVE. Mailers and Santa Monica newspaper ads proffered in the name of the Police Association and the Firefighters Union have papered the city, boldly declaring that LV is ‘extreme and risky’ because hospitals, police and fire stations more than two stories high that might be damaged or destroyed by the ‘big one’ or a ‘disaster’ couldn’t be rebuilt without public approval. (Note the adrenaline verbiage, a tested technique of inducing public anxiety for political gain.)

Similarly, the same argument warns that a historical ‘non-conforming structure’, once damaged or destroyed by sudden catastrophe, would suffer the same voter approval fate.

In both cases, the sky is not falling. LUVE would apply to new development, not existing structures. Any building that stands today is subject to Santa Monica’s municipal code which specifically and categorically states that any lawfully constructed building in existence that did not comply with LUVE after its passage would be considered ‘non-conforming‘, and may therefore be restored or replaced to its parameters (footprint, envelope, height, density, and parking) if damaged in a ‘non-voluntary fire, explosion, earthquake, or other natural disaster’(SM Municipal Code Article 9.27.040).

Since humans can handle only so much fear before becoming numb, its precursors – uncertainty and doubt – may be employed to prime the adrenaline pump. For example, Santa Monica Forward proclaims that LUVE will ‘hurt renters and make the city even less affordable’ by incentivizing landlords to tear down rent-controlled apartment buildings and build two-story luxury condos. The opinionated assertion begs the question: will business people (rental property is a business) really do that?

Employing uncertainty ­­– ‘could I be evicted to make way for a luxury condo’?! – is designed to raise anxiety to the level of ‘I don’t want to worry… therefore NO’. Equally valid is the opinion that tearing down a perfectly serviceable, income-producing building – this after incurring design, planning, demolition, site remediation fees, and the loss of operating income before embarking on an expensive two-story new building is a risky, financially dubious (if not dumb) choice. Certainly, it might happen in a city with several thousand buildings, but any prudent cost-benefit analysis could poke holes in a project that has no economies of scale built into the operating pro forma.

 

If fear is the club and uncertainty the needle, doubt is a whisper. What if? Look no further than the canards that LUVE will ‘not take a single car off our streets’ (coupled with the claim that it will actually increase traffic because of reduced housing) and ‘will hurt our schools’ by diverting municipal funds toward foolish litigation that could be avoided but for LUVE.

Aren’t these postulates quite the stretch? Will new, tall buildings take a single car off our streets? One could have a reasonable debate whether height and density offers housing that encourages less car ownership, but it doesn’t take a scientist to speculate that more housing means more people – which means, more cars.

Similarly, the argument that LUVE will be deleterious to our schools ignores the basic fact that they (and Santa Monica College) are subject to California state statutes, not Santa Monica municipal law. Making the pitch that an inevitable plethora of developer lawsuits will drain the public till, thereby depriving our schoolchildren of the means to a quality education, is a trifecta of fear, uncertainty, and doubt aimed straight at parents who will likely vote. This is quite the consultants’ clever stroke; excepting that it doesn’t wash with our laws.

Proponents and opponents have many plausible and measured reasons for their positions, and there can be no doubt that LUVE is a ‘yuge’ choice in a city on the cusp of its civic identity. However, notwithstanding the consequences of either passage or defeat, the bedrock of city law still applies, as does market economics and education funding. Making up hysterical claims to the contrary is a disingenuous and unethical manipulation of the LUVE issue.

Santa Monica residents –now weighing the alternative futures that their vote for or against Measure LV envisions – must make a decision on the basis of fact and foreseeable consequence. From all advocates, we deserve an accurate display of both, not the current torrent of emotional obfuscation that mimics our national slugfest.

The relative financial muscle at play illustrates the stakes.