Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Tough report on Los Angeles has lessons for state

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

California, it’s been said, is a microcosm of what the rest of the nation will be like a few decades hence.

If true, Los Angeles is a microcosm of what California will be like. And it’s not a pretty picture, as a blue-ribbon commission makes clear.

The Los Angeles 2020 Commission, created by the City Council, didn’t mince words in its report, “A Time for Truth,” declaring, “Los Angeles is barely treading water while the rest of the world is moving forward. We risk falling further behind in adapting to the realities of the 21st century and becoming a city in decline.”

Its findings – many of which could be applied to the entire state – include:

• The city is becoming an enclave of rich and poor. Median family incomes are lower than they were in 2007, its poverty rate is higher than any other major American city, and it has fewer jobs today than it did a decade ago.

• The city was once the home of 12 Fortune 500 companies, but that has dwindled to four, less than 10 percent of New York’s 43.

• It has the nation’s worst traffic congestion.

• Its school system ranks second from the bottom in California in high school graduation.

• The city government is spending more than it takes in, municipal services are declining and the city retirement program has huge unfunded liabilities.

During the 1980s, Los Angeles had a much-deserved reputation for civic pride and economic creativity. It hosted the Olympics, expanded its airport, fostered a renaissance in its downtown core, became a banking powerhouse and saw its seaport dominate rising trans-Pacific trade.

But the 1990s were cruel. Southern California’s aerospace industry, which had prospered mightily during World War II and the Cold War, collapsed when the latter abruptly ended.

Thanks to technology, moviemakers were no longer confined to studios and other states and nations lured away film production with subsidies. Only a surge in pornography slowed the industry’s erosion.

It’s estimated that more than a million people, many of them aerospace workers and their families, fled Southern California during the decade, and they were replaced by waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, rapidly and dramatically transforming the region’s cultural matrix.

Many – probably most – of the newcomers were poorly educated, and while they filled low-skill jobs, the loss of the high-income aerospace workers was keenly felt.

Los Angeles’ politics moved left and became dominated by labor unions, and the city developed a reputation for hostility to business, as the blue-ribbon report notes.

The report paints a grim picture but also points to how Los Angeles can overcome its deficiencies – if it has the civic and political will. Its success or failure may be a harbinger for the entire state.