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The Pacific Century : Defying Gloomy Forecasts, Author Joel Kotkin Sees a New Era of U.S. Prosperity Launched in Dynamic L.A.

Times Staff Writer

For Joel Kotkin, this is a city of black and white. Black people and white people. Debates framed in simplistic black-and-white terms instead of their various shades of complexity. And most significantly, an entrenched bureaucratic view of the world that rarely sees beyond memos written in black and white.

“The crucial moment in my life was when I decided Washington wasn’t the center of the universe, that I didn’t have to be here to write about important issues of public policy,” says Kotkin. “The future of America is being shaped in Los Angeles, California and the West Coast. I wanted to be where I could tell that story.”

Myriad of Cultures

Los Angeles, where Kotkin--a New York native--has lived and worked as a journalist for the past 13 years, is everything Washington is not: A myriad of cultures, races and ethnic groups. An open, dynamic entrepreneurial business environment. Movies instead of memos. And most important, as Kotkin puts it: “Immigrants from Asia and Latin America are the driving force behind the transformation of the Southern California economy. L.A. is becoming the metropolis of the world economy.”

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Living in Los Angeles has given Kotkin an entirely different perspective from that of the New England academics and Wall Street mavens who prophesy the inevitable decline of America.

“Power, money, and technology are flowing from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Atlantic, with its European orientation, to the Asian Pacific Rim,” Kotkin says. “That’s why the East Coast elite has lost confidence in the future of America.

“But we don’t have to buy their vision. What is happening on the West Coast and (in) much of the rest of the country reflects a tremendous economic vitality and sense of optimism. We can create our own vision.”

In his new book, “The Third Century: America’s Resurgence in the Asian Era” (Crown), Kotkin is trying to do just that. Together with co-author Yoriko Kishimoto, a Bay Area business consultant, he paints a picture of an American economic renaissance in the 1990s and beyond, based on fostering the transformation of the United States from a “melting pot” of Europeans to a far more open “world nation” with its strongest links to the rising Pacific economic powers of Asia.

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‘Fundamentally a Threat’

“Easterners view the rise of Asia as fundamentally a threat to the interests of the United States,” Kotkin argues. “But if you live in the West, you realize there’s no reason automatically to see it that way.”

For years, the rest of the country has looked to California for a glimpse of the future. Usually such developments, however, were treated as exotica or trivial cultural developments. Southern California was La-La Land, the home of fruits and nuts, Hollywood’s baby tycoons making deals around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel or L’Ermitage. Few people in the rest of the country took California seriously. And not many Californians did either.

“I decided to take California seriously,” says Kotkin, acknowledging with a laugh that his statement sounds more than a little portentous. “Even at 35, you can be a curmudgeon. I’m something of a curmudgeon.

After working for the San Francisco Bay Guardian while going to UC Berkeley, Kotkin began his career by joining the Washington Post in Los Angeles as a stringer. It was 1975, and the Post, despite its pretensions to being a national newspaper, had few reporters outside Washington.

Kotkin acknowledges that, at first, he had to struggle to overcome the demands from editors for cliche-ridden stories about laid-back Los Angeles. But soon he was writing about the effect of the wave of immigration from Mexico on the Southwest, about Southern California’s development into the nation’s largest concentration of high-technology industries, about the political fund-raising power of the entertainment business.

Why Not Washington?

“It was fun,” he says now. “But the Post couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to come to Washington. I mean, the idea is, if you want to make it, you go to Washington or New York. Nobody stays in L.A. to be a journalist.”

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After writing a book on the changing business structure of California, Kotkin found a new job as West Coast correspondent for Inc. magazine, a slick monthly based in Boston that is the bible of high-growth small businesses.

Inc. is an unusual success story of the 1980s. Many of its editors were leftist intellectuals in the 1960s and ‘70s who decided that the assault of rapidly growing entrepreneurial businesses on the Fortune 500 was as anti-Establishment as their earlier challenges to the Vietnam War. Kotkin, who had studied under democratic socialist Michael Harrington in New York and whose father had voted for Henry Wallace in 1948, felt right at home.

But few West Coast writers have much influence on the intellectual and political debates of the day. Kotkin blames it on the “inferiority complex” that has taken root in California because the West lacks what his friend, Bay Area political analyst Bill Bradley, calls a “counter-Establishment.”

Unfortunately, Kotkin acknowledges, “most West Coast thinkers try to gain respectability by being more Eastern than Easterners.”

For Kotkin and Kishimoto, “The Third Century"--a reference to the dawn of the third century of American independence--is the West Coast answer to the wave of recent books by Eastern academics bemoaning the decline of American and European power and influence in the world. The most well-known exponent of that viewpoint is probably Yale University Prof. Paul Kennedy, a British scholar whose “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” has been on the best-seller lists for much of the year.

But Kotkin’s argument is really more with Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago professor who wrote “The Closing of the American Mind,” Robert Reich, a Harvard public policy lecturer who wrote “Tales of a New America,” and Walter Russell Mead, author of “Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition” and a key intellectual force behind the recent Cuomo Commission report sponsored by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo on trade and competitiveness issues.

In contrast to the Eastern intellectuals, who are largely influenced by European thinkers and look to the class-based, social democratic parties of Western Europe as a model, Kotkin and Kishimoto celebrate the individualism and openness of American life.

“Through the openness of its culture and its political system, its racial diversity and the entrepreneurial dynamism of its economy, America can assume a pivotal, indeed dominant, position in the emerging post-European international order,” they write.

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As Kotkin sees it, New York’s elite fears the economic ascendancy of Japan partly because Tokyo threatens Wall Street’s role as the financial capital of the world. But the recent wave of complaints over foreign investment threatening the U.S. economy also represents a more generalized fear of the unknown.

“The fear of Asians is really a very deep-seated thing going back to the Roman Empire,” says Kotkin. “But why would the Japanese plot to destroy the country they’re investing in? It’s lunacy.

“It used to be the protocols of Zion, but now it’s the protocols of Nippon. Nobody talks about the British, French, or Canadians, who are much bigger investors in the United States and California. Just look. I don’t see anybody running down Flower Street yelling, ‘The Canadians are coming. The Canadians are coming.’ ”

Besides Kotkin and Kishimoto, other writers and institutions in the West are finally beginning to take up the challenge of trying to influence public debates on economic and political issues.

New Perspectives Quarterly, edited by Nathan Gardels, a former adviser to ex-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., and published by the Center of the Study of Democratic Institutions, is a source of some of the most innovative political and cultural affairs writing in the country. Bill Bradley’s Larkspur Report chronicles political and economic developments from a West Coast viewpoint. The Center for the New West, which will analyze Western economic trends, is scheduled to open in Denver in January. And the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, based at the University of California and heavily funded by Silicon Valley firms, is having a growing influence on trade policy thinking.

“Things are reaching a critical mass on the West Coast,” says Bradley, who began his newsletter after Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart, whom he was advising, dropped out in disgrace.

“What underlies the rise of California in the debate is a very powerful economy. We’re creating an expanding pie that, despite all its problems, works because it is more in tune with the new realities.”

Reviewers of Kotkin and Kishimoto’s book have generally praised its contribution to the current debate over how to rebuild the U.S. economy to meet the challenges of the 1990s and the 21st Century.

“With the Cold War muted, the overriding priority is economic, and that means responding to Asia,” writes William J. Holstein in Business Week magazine. “ ‘The Third Century’ could help put that historic shift in focus.”

But critics have also pinpointed what they see as a number of flaws in Kotkin’s and Kishimoto’s generally upbeat approach.

Weaknesses Cited

Walter Russell Mead, writing in a recent issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, says that “being a prophet of doom isn’t easy,” complains that “while Kotkin is undoubtedly right to believe that our diverse ethnic population gives us the potential to become a ‘world nation,’ he is mistaken to suppose that his nation of immigrants will come about by the unaided labors of the invisible hand. . . . Modern society depends on a complex institutional base, and the kind of society that Kotkin sees America becoming will require more government, not less.”

There is a final irony in the reception to Kotkin’s book, which is beginning to be taken seriously now precisely because the Eastern elites are becoming more and more interested in understanding the rise of Asian economic power.

“I’ve been lucky,” Kotkin admits. “1988 is the year the East Coast discovered the Pacific Rim. As long as it was only auto workers in Detroit who were impacted, it wasn’t real. But when it’s investment bankers in New York being affected, then it’s real.”


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