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Los Angeles on the Edge

Does Los Angeles have what it takes to become the capital city of the 21st century?

April 28, 2004

Does Los Angeles have what it takes to become the capital city of the 21st century?

Were the five-county Los Angeles region a country, it would be the ninth-largest economy in the world. And Los Angeles County alone would rank 14th.

Los Angeles' aspirations match its size. It wants to be the global capital of the 21st century, just as New York was for much of the 20th.

For a long time, Los Angeles was viewed as being on the continent's edge. But given that Tokyo is 5,478 miles (8,815 km) away, while London is 5,456 miles (8,781 km) away, L.A. now sees itself as the midpoint between two of the world's three great trading areas. It looks across to Asia — and back at Europe.

Rivaled only by Shanghai, L.A. boosters plan to rely on technology as the motor — and the lead of the private sector — to achieve their goals.

And sure enough, L.A. has great potential to become a global capital of the 21st century. As the city's visionaries see it, the region will outsource many services, such as finance, to New York — and much of the service called "government" to Washington, D.C. in particular.

So much for the vision of L.A.'s future. But how far along is the city in getting there? The news on this front is much more sober. At present, there is no means for constructing such a vision for the region.

One author refers to many regional initiatives as "morning glories," impressive in the morning but dead by nightfall. Or, as Nathan Gardels — the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly — puts it: In Los Angeles, everything grows — but nothing connects.

What Los Angeles is today is a place of many new faces. This transformation can hardly be overstated for a region that was — until the change in U.S. immigration policy in the 1960s — as white as any big city in the country.

According to the 2000 census, the Los Angeles region is home to 4.8 million immigrants — or one-fifth of all immigrants in the nation.

Whites constituted less than one-third of the residents of Los Angeles County, while Latinos made up almost 45% and Asians another 12%. And the numbers understate the reality, because they exclude illegal immigrants.

In my suburb — though the term "Los Angeles suburb" probably is redundant — many of the young blond men and women have Spanish surnames, the products of upwardly-mobile Latino men and their Anglo wives.

At its best, LA's vision of tomorrow is of a middle class — Asian, Anglo and Latino — that is almost entirely unconscious of race.

Less promising, the various ethnic groups cluster in a patchwork quilt of their own neighborhoods. Their mixing in the same neighborhoods has actually diminished over time.

As the number of Latinos has exploded, those Latinos have been drawn to particular neighborhoods. As a consequence, any given Latino is less likely to meet a white in his or her census tract than was the case a generation ago.

At its worst, what L.A. offers is the specter of a growing immigrant underclass — with neither enough jobs nor skills to advance into the middle classes. Already, Mexican and Central American immigration has pushed the city's African-American population down the pecking order.

Tom Bradley — who served from 1973 to 1993 — almost surely was the last African-American to be the city's mayor. And the first Latino mayor surely will be the first of many.

So far, though, the huge influx of lower-skilled immigrants has been mostly a boon. Employers hardly have to post an opening. All they need do is inform the company's ethnic networks — and the opening will be filled with a reliable cousin or sister.

Yet the waves of immigrations, particularly from the south, have driven down the average education level in the region — and in LA County in particular. That is an ominous trend.

New faces are making their way to positions of leadership; Charles Woo of Megatoys was recently president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Yet, Los Angeles suffers the paradox of globalization. Economic dynamism both destroys the old focal points of leadership — and provides little space for new ones to sprout as replacements.

The old focal points were the big, regional companies — such as the oil company ARCO, for instance — that provided some region-wide perspective.

Like other regions only more so, LA has lost those to mergers or takeovers in the dynamic global economy.

There are few laments for a past when crucial decisions were made by the "Committee of 25," which was a group of businessmen meeting at a downtown men's club.

And yet, new ways of taking a regional view are lacking. Today's drivers of globalization, innovative smaller companies, are precisely unable to substitute the perspective that bigger companies once brought to the table.

Heads of those small companies have to run fast to compete. They have no time — or space — to take a wider view.

Moreover, globalization moves fast and takes risks, while governance moves slowly and avoids them. Every serious look at the issue concludes that Los Angeles' pre-eminent airport, LAX, needs to be expanded.

Yet NIMBY — "not in my backyard" — opposition has prevented it. And 9/11 has given local politicians a handy way to duck expansion by talking bravely of increased airport security.

Thus, LA's vision of tomorrow will be a vision without a vision. It will be haphazard, driven by the energy of new migrants and new entrepreneurs, not formal government arrangements.

If there is connective tissue, that will be provided piecemeal and more by private associations than public policy, more by L.A. Lakers victories in basketball or KMEX, the main Spanish language radio, than by the L.A. city mayor or the county commissioners.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior researcher at RAND and Senior Fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy.