California Withdraws from Public LIfe

GEORGE F. WILL

July 01, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Los Angeles. -- This city, transformed in a generation from a shimmering symbol of possibilities to a dark portent, now has a new mayor, Richard Riordan, 63, a nominal Republican whose problems begin with the civic culture itself.

When Mayor Tom Bradley was elected in 1973, 674,555 people voted. Since then the city has grown by almost that many, but this year only 598,436 voted. A city where 40 percent of all households have unlisted telephone numbers is experiencing a great withdrawal -- from public life, including public schools, into gated neighborhoods, or just indoors, or to suburbs. Why? Begin with fear.

In 1970 vehicular accidents killed more than twice as many people as gunshot homicides. In 1991 gunshots killed more than vehicular accidents did. In a recent five-year period there was a legal handgun sale for every 19 residents of Los Angeles county. Illegal sales fuel the arms race. Says Mr. Riordan, old businesses are leaving, new businesses will not locate in combat zones, tourists are going elsewhere and children do not learn in an insecure environment.

But the ratio of police to citizens, one to 500, is the nation's lowest. In Los Angeles' low-density sprawl, there are 15 officers per square mile compared with 89 in New York. Law enforcement as a percentage of city spending has declined substantially while city budgets have doubled every eight years.

Mr. Riordan won a majority of voters earning $20,000 to $40,000, including many entrepreneurial immigrants -- Latinos and Asians -- whose work ethic causes them to revolt against what they see as a welfare ethic. The defining datum of the current crisis is this: The number of jobs in America and the number of inner-city unemployed both grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s. (Yes, many jobs left inner-city neighborhoods, but waves of immigrants have traveled up to 10,000 miles to fill entry-level jobs.)

The contraction of defense industries need not be a calamity. In the 18 months after V-J Day in 1945 Los Angeles lost 232,000 of 300,000 defense jobs. But in the immediate postwar years one in eight of the nation's new jobs were created in the Los Angeles area, which still is the nation's largest manufacturing area.

The greatest service Mayor Riordan, a venture capitalist, could render, would be to make the city government less harmful. Scores of permits and many months are required to get a business started; it is increasingly difficult to get a business to thrive in this high-tax and regulation-saturated environment.

The education system is not furnishing a competent work force. The unified school district, covering 708 square miles and all or parts of 28 cities and serving a polyglot population asserting scores of bilingual entitlements, should be broken up. Mr. Riordan, a Catholic philanthropist with an admirable record of involvement with inner-city education, says Catholic schools are getting much better results than public schools at less than one-third the cost.

Yet he opposes the November referendum to create a voucher program to empower parents to chose any school, public or private. He says that would devastate the public school system. What more can be said against that system, or for the referendum?

Mr. Riordan speaks matter-of-factly about ''triage,'' the need to ''forget rehabilitating certain groups'' because the ''cost-per-success is too high.'' High costs are at every hand. For example, if, as a governor's report says, one in eight California babies is born with drugs in its blood, imagine the ratio in Los Angeles.

With whimsical precision, Mr. Riordan says that in government ''vision and ideas'' count for 2.7 percent and ''implementation'' counts for ''97.3 percent, more or less.'' His is a familiar tone of voice, heard from Henry Ford to Ross Perot. It is the brisk can-do impatience of the capitalist determined to make government more ''businesslike.'' Business people are apt to believe that political power can be as frictionless as money movements -- that governmental processes can flow like money in a market.

When Mr. Riordan speaks ingenuously of restoring the city's ''lost will,'' skeptics may wonder: What is this, Nietzsche goes to city hall? But as Kevin Starr, the leading historian of Southern California, writes, ''Los Angeles envisioned itself, then materialized that vision through sheer force of will.''

This implausible city was planted in a semi-arid basin by the historic hubris of willful people -- first railroad tycoons, then agriculture and energy and real-estate and entertainment go-getters. It has always been many factions but one large act of defiance -- first of nature, then of all precedents of urban development. Mayor Riordan's government cannot solve many problems, other than those it creates, but he can get the city government out of the way of the energies that still teem in this basin.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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