Want to secede from the U.S.? Ask the Valley how that goes

Eric Hanson's illustration of what the property settlement session might be like if some states -- many of them Southern and red -- were to succeed and secede.
(Eric Hanson / For The Times)

Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, take a lesson from Los Angeles. From the San Fernando Valley.

Don’t even think about seceding. You can’t afford it.

Ten years ago, the San Fernando Valley -- about half of the city’s area -- began a movement to secede from Los Angeles. But two-thirds of Angelenos voted not to let the Valley secede and become its own city. We’re still together -- one big not-always-completely-happy family, but what family is?

There’s a lesson here.

Since President Obama’s reelection, online petitions on the White House website from disgruntled residents of almost every state are demanding that they be let out of the Union (150 years after the Old South tried the same thing and lost).

There are nearly 700,000 signatures, the bulk of them reported to be from a handful of states, including many of the original Dixie ones, where Republican governors have been metaphorically eye-rolling over it all. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal called it “silly.” And West Virginia’s effort is touchingly ungrammatical: “we petition the Obama Administration to: Peacefully grant the State of West Virginia to Withdraw from the United States and Create it’s own NEW Govern (sic).” Perhaps West Virginia can persuade some English teachers to leave the Union too.


When the San Fernando Valley wanted to break up with the city of L.A., it was much better positioned, financially and strategically, than these states, and it still didn’t happen.

For one, it’s legal for Californians to secede from their old cities and counties and form new municipalities. It’s not legal for a state in the United States to do so. Hello, does “Civil War” ring a bell? Maybe West Virginia could also talk some history teachers into seceding along with it.

(Amusingly, others have used the White House website to file their own petitions asking that Americans who want to secede from America be stripped of their U.S. citizenship, as happened to the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis. And a few hundred residents of Austin, Texas’ capital, have petitioned to ask to be allowed to secede from Texas and stay in the Union if the Lone Star State goes its own way. It’s a fine, droll story for the postelection political news vacuum, but one with deep and unsettlingly misguided sentiments.)

The White House website carries dozens of petitions begun by Americans, among them one to nationalize the Twinkie industry, another to create a national holiday honoring Michael Jackson, and another demanding that the Obama administration get rid of itself.

Even though at least one significant study at the time concluded the Valley could afford to go its own way, the Valley still had a complicated prenup with L.A. It would have been more like separating densely conjoined twins -- the tangle of water rights, the cost of re-creating its own bureaucracy, the price of paying off its share of pensions for the police and firefighters and city workers it was divorcing, and having to make out a check to the remaining city of Los Angeles for an annual palimony cost of as much as $68 million.

The Valley’s own grievances went back to conflicts over school integration and busing in the 1970s, and the feeling that, for all its size, the Valley was a neglected entity at City Hall, and didn’t get as much in city resources as it was paying for.


The last mayor from the Valley was Sam Yorty in the 1960s, but current mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel is from the Valley, and her fellow contender Eric Garcetti opened campaign headquarters in Studio City.

In the 18th century, the grievance of Colonial Americans before the Revolution was taxation without representation. These states all have representation. In Congress. In the Senate. In the White House. They’re just miffed, and sulking that things didn’t go entirely their way on Nov. 6, and they’re threatening to take their ball and go home.

Except it isn’t entirely their ball.

The states where many of these aggrieved Americans live arguably aren’t as financially well-positioned as the Valley. These are red states not just politically but economically. In their fiscal relationships with the federal government, they are taker-states -- part of the 47%.

Dollar for dollar, they get back more from the federal government than they put in in taxes. Alabama, $1.71 for every dollar it sends to D.C.; Louisiana, $1.45. And who are the 53%? The net donor states? Often, it’s blue states such as California; Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complained throughout his years in Sacramento about California’s tax charity to its poorer sibling states, 79 cents back in federal aid for every $1 it sent to Washington. (Curiously, that’s the same 21-cent differential on the dollar that women have been earning to men’s dollar for the same work.)

As I wrote a couple of years ago, in a U.S. Senate primary in Alaska, a Republican candidate campaigned on “stop the pork,” when a pork-free Alaska might have gone hungry. He lost.

My Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank points to the 2012 version of what we were hearing in 2004.


Back then, blue-state residents were grumbling about George W. Bush’s second term and ruminating about taking their tax dollars and high-tech industry and Nobel laureates and leaving the red states behind to manage on their own -- in effect, refighting the Civil War on paper by not fighting at all, and letting the New South and its friends do what the Old South fought to do: go it alone.

You want secession? You can’t afford secession.

Imagine the taxes these states would have to raise to make up the difference for the federal aid they would no longer get. And if the states can’t pony up the money to provide the programs that their people get and want, as the federal government does now (with the help of the rest of us) -- well, I can also imagine a scenario where ailing Alabamians or Oklahomans would look longingly over their borders, to states that do have healthcare exchanges, and sneak in to get themselves some medical treatment. Just as Sarah Palin, sworn opponent of Obamacare, said her family used to slip over into Canada to get a piece of that socialized medicine.

Ron Paul, the departing Texas congressman and erstwhile presidential candidate, just called secession a “deeply American principle.”

What I haven’t heard is this: Apart from the debtor-state financial questions, exactly what is it that these pettish citizens cannot do now that they could do before January 2009, when Obama was sworn in?

To the contrary; if you look it at this election from a Ron Paul libertarian point of view, residents of Colorado and Washington state now have the freedom to smoke marijuana recreationally, and residents of Maryland and Maine just said “we do” to allowing people the freedom to marry their same-sex partners.

Blue states, all of them.



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