Against the Tide

Al Jacobs

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial, titled “The NIMBYs vs. the homeless,” pretty well describes how mankind conducted itself these past several thousand years. For those of you who don’t recognize the term, it translates to “not in my back yard,” and identifies the mass of humanity reconciled to the areas where they’ve made their homes and to the living conditions they find comfortable. More specifically, they look with disfavor upon any persons or circumstances threatening to disrupt the way of living to which they’re accustomed.

The particular article refers to a decision just rendered by the California Superior Court to permit two homeless shelters to be developed in established residential areas of the City of Los Angeles. One is to be the Lorena Plaza homeless housing development of 49 units just southeast of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles; the other, a 154-bed shelter on a vacated bus yard in Venice, at the western edge of the city.

In both instances the decisions are vigorously opposed by local interests. The owners of the shops adjacent to Lorena Plaza are trying to require the developer to conduct a time-consuming study of the hazards of an abandoned oil well underneath the vacant property. In Venice, various homeowners groups are attempting to force the City of Los Angeles to perform a full environmental impact review of the project. As expected, the locals are doing everything in their power to thwart the court’s attempt to permit the homeless to reside anywhere in the area.

Whether or not you approve of the actions taken by those who wish to deprive the homeless of access to living accommodations in their communities, you must recognize we members of civilization always display this sort of an attitude. As a society we collectively determine who we want around us, how they’ll conduct themselves and who we’ll oust if they don’t fit our mold.

And if the authorities charged with enforcing the rules we must conform to come up with different ideas, then it will become open warfare … with no quarter drawn. If you think not, consider a pair of societal upheavals in our nation over the past century in which the entire might of established authority sided with interests diametrically opposed to the innate desires of the citizenry. In the final analysis the social attitudes won out over the full force of government. Let me describe how each event took place.

In the early 19th century, religious revivalists and groups like the American Temperance Society campaigned against what they viewed as a nationwide scourge of drunkenness. The activists scored a victory in 1851, when Maine’s legislature passed a statewide prohibition on selling alcohol. A dozen other states soon instituted similar laws.” Calls for a dry America continued as groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union gained support for anti-alcohol legislation.

Prohibition seemed all but assured when we entered World War I in 1917 and the conflict inserted the last nail into the coffin of legalized alcohol. Dry advocates argued that barley used in brewing beer might be made into bread to feed American soldiers and war-ravaged Europeans and they managed to get wartime bans on strong drink. Anti-alcohol crusaders were fueled by xenophobia and the war allowed them to paint America’s largely German brewing industry as a threat. Worst of all German brewers became accused of menacing America with Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.

The 18th Amendment forbade manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor. Along with creating an army of federal agents, it, together with the Volstead Act, required individual states to enforce Prohibition within their borders. It was, however, opposed by many citizens as well as apathetic officials. Though prohibition became law, it can be said that, except to a limited extent, it never went into practical effect at all.

While many small distilleries and breweries operated in secret during Prohibition, others either shut their doors or found new uses for their factories. Some produced near beer – legal brew containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol. The lion’s share of brewers kept the lights on by peddling malt syrup, a legally dubious extract easily made into beer by adding water and yeast and allowing time for fermentation.

By the late 1920s, Americans spent more money than ever on black market booze. New York City boasted more than 30,000 speakeasies and Detroit’s alcohol trade ranked second only to the auto industry in its contribution to the economy. With the country bogged down by the Great Depression, anti-Prohibition activists argued that potential savings and tax revenue from alcohol were too precious to ignore. The public agreed. Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt called for repeal during the 1932 presidential campaign and won the election in a landslide. Prohibition expired a year later, when a majority of states repealed it by ratifying the 21st Amendment.

The second example: the willingness of the political hierarchy to respond to perceived educational imperfections by imposing rules and procedures seriously impeding a school’s performance which proves contrary to the wishes of its citizens. The current agenda in many southwestern states to impose bilingual education programs raises questions as to the long-term detrimental effect on the pupils.

Similarly, the rush by school boards across the nation several decades ago to endorse minority studies courses was seen by critics as using the classroom as a dumping ground. Whatever the benefits or detriments of these actions, the decisions are often dictated more by political than educational considerations.

Perhaps the prime example of this attitude took place in the Los Angeles School District during a more than ten-year period starting in the late 1960s, brought about by changing demographic patterns in the urban areas of Southern California.

The Los Angeles School Board embraced a program to mitigate what was claimed to be the adverse effect of neighborhood school assignment reflecting the racial distribution of each community. Under the direction of then-Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson, they instituted a massive school reassignment, involving the daily busing of hundreds of thousands of students over an area of nearly five hundred square miles. The intent: to endow each classroom with a predetermined percentage racial mixture.

Not only were the students bussed, but in an effort to ensure students of one race would not be taught by instructors of another race, the teachers were also required to travel long distances each day to attend schools outside their normal districts. The result: A devastating effect on schooling throughout the district.

Residents of the school district polarized into opposing camps; parents and teachers organized to combat the reassignments; private and parochial schools in the area found themselves deluged with applicants; many families moved from the area; anti-busing candidates successfully challenged members of the school board endorsing the program; and the judge found himself resoundingly voted out of office.

If anything, the calamitous results of the compulsory integration project tended to verify an age-old lesson as to the unworkability and regressiveness of unpopular laws. Forced busing mandated that those parents with sufficient wealth, of all races, enroll their children in private schools or move from the school district. Those parents with insufficient means to do so were compelled to accede to the law. There’s little comfort to be found in such an outcome, irrespective of your position on the issue.

A final comment: Despite the fact some homeless persons are only temporarily down on their luck, as a group they’re perceived by many to be unfit for contact with society. Attempts by the political hierarchy to force their integration into mainstream America will continue to be met with resistance. If history is a guide as to how the matter will be resolved, the likelihood is the homeless will continue to be both shunned and shunted elsewhere. The officials may continue to allocate substantial sums in the gentrification process, but they’ll simply be shoveling it against the tide.


Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view them on


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