“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”
Yeah, it’s a bit crazy out here, and that’s what Edward Abbey was getting at with those words. And he was the “Thoreau of the American West” after all. But he was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Home, Pennsylvania, which is a bit east of Pittsburgh. That’s okay. All of us from western Pennsylvania, not just the naturalists like Abbey, who find ourselves out here, have a hard time making sense of this place. Even after almost thirty years in Los Angeles, one word pops up at least two or three times a day. What? That’s especially true here in Hollywood.
Of course Abbey was concerned with environmental issues and public land policies, and is now an inspiration to radical environmental groups. He knew that out here no one was thinking clearly about how we were ruining everything, as in that Eagles song, The Last Resort – ” You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” But it’s more than that. This place is falling apart.
It wasn’t always that way. This is where you went to reinvent yourself. John Judis explains:
California is a mess, but I love it all the same – especially the Bay Area, where I lived for 15 years. I went to Berkeley in 1962 – a refugee from Amherst College, which at that time was dominated by frat boys with high SAT scores. I didn’t go to Berkeley to go to school, but to be a bus ride away from North Beach and the Jazz Workshop. In a broader sense, I went to California for the same reason that other émigrés had been going since the 1840s. I was knocking on the Golden Door.
Immigrants from Europe had come to America seeking happiness and a break with their unhappy pasts. But many Americans – from the ’49ers of the Gold Rush to Mark Twain to a young Ronald Reagan – had gone to California to find renewal. California was part of the American frontier, but, as Carey McWilliams points out in California: The Great Exception, it developed outside the framework of the American frontier. It was not an extension of the East or Midwest, but became a state in 1850 before other Western states. It was an island in the sun without Pilgrim winters or windswept prairies. It nourished its own dream of wealth and well-being. It was the American dream all over again, but dreamt within America.
And Judis admits that California has fulfilled many of those dreams:
It has extended and enhanced the promise of America – from the discovery of gold to the introduction of the movies and television, the aerospace industry, Silicon Valley, and the Central Valley’s giant farms that supply a quarter of America’s food. It has also been a political and cultural vanguard – from John C. Fremont, the first presidential candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party, to Progressive Governor Hiram Johnson, Socialist Upton Sinclair, old-age-pension agitator Francis Townsend, and down to Richard Nixon, Earl Warren, and Reagan. The New Left staged its first mass protests in Berkeley. Gay rights came out of Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the New Right was spurred by California’s tax revolt and by the backlash against illegal immigration.
Ah, this is where things start, where things are happening, or what you will. But Judis notes that although he was drawn to California by Kerouac’s On the Road, by the time he arrived, the era of the beatniks was over. Most everything was over. And the piece he writes is End State: Is California finished?
That’s an interesting question, and this long item in The New Republic considers whether “California’s days as a politico-cultural vanguard and economic bellwether” are coming to an end:
The state has endured swings and has come back better than ever. Writing in 1949, with unemployment at 14 percent, McWilliams questioned whether California exceptionalism had finally come to an end, but, with the onset of the cold war, Southern California benefited from an aerospace boom. Again, in the early 1990s, California seemed to be falling into a black hole: Cutbacks in military spending decimated the state’s defense industries, and, by the end of 1992, unemployment was 9.9 percent, 2.5 points higher than the national rate; that year, Kemper Securities rated California’s economy fifty-first in investment prospects among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But the growth of dot-coms, a global entertainment industry, and biotech led its rebound.
Last month, California’s unemployment rate hit 12.2 percent, a 70-year high. Its bond rating is the lowest of the 50 states. Earlier, the state government had to issue IOUs. Its political system – once the envy of other states – has become dysfunctional. And its educational system, which former University of California president Clark Kerr described as “bait to be dangled in front of industry,” is riven by conflict and reeling from budget cuts. Is this déjà vu all over again, or has the California dream finally become a nightmare? There are troubling signs.
So Judis covers those, and it’s a sorry tale of increasing foolishness of the sort Edward Abbey would understand. And of course the article was forwarded to me here in Hollywood from an old college buddy, now a big gun at Harvard.
Yep, as the sixties ended, and college ended, we all scattered to the winds. But after four years at that small liberal arts college in central Ohio, most everyone ended up back east, being all successful – this friend at Harvard, another at NYU, another working for Roger Ailes and then joining Ted Turner to get CNN started, and so on. Yeah, back then we were the campus counterculture intellectuals or something, so what would you expect? But very few of us ended up out here in California, staring at the sky, wondering just went wrong. Ah well, the weather is nice. The sun shines most of the time. Sure, back in the day, that song California Dreamin’ was a bit deceptive – I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA and all that. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. It worked for Aldous Huxley after all.
But when your friends worry about you, wondering why you’re out there in the land of Paris Hilton and Ronald Reagan, where the economy is collapsing and government at all levels has pretty much seized up, while the sweet young things in tiny hardly-there bikinis glide by on rollerblades, it’s only fair to remind them that things start in California, and what is happening here is coming their way. And we devised a new way of getting things done. And it guarantees chaos and despair.
Also in The New Republic, Rich Yeselson explains – “We are living through the Californiafication of America – a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges.”
Yep, Edward Abbey knew, and Yeselson suggests everyone should try to imagine a nation which could pass legislation with a simple majority vote in both houses of its legislature. We gave up on that out here years ago. Anything that raises taxes, or fees, and passing the state budget in general, requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature, and sometimes a state referendum, which always loses. So, as with the US Senate now, where ending discussion and getting around to voting on anything requires sixty votes, nothing gets done. And California led the way.
Yeselson likes the old majority-rule days, and asks us to imagine what it would be like if Washington hadn’t gone all California. That system – “one that is not held captive to an anachronistic, extra-constitutional supermajority requirement that is now being imposed by a minority party which refuses to engage on the big issues” – can be imagined:
Suddenly, Obama’s stimulus is larger and more thoughtfully targeted, his proposed financial regulations have real bite and a coherent rationale behind them, and his health care bill covers more people with better subsidies. Suddenly, Obama is able to augment that original stimulus, if necessary, as he sees fit, rather than desperately hoping that further unemployment benefits will be sufficient. Suddenly, because of a rational, democratic procedure, Obama is paradoxically a president with a record of substantive achievement regarding the crucial public policy issues of the moment. And the misplaced anxieties of those Americans with immediate concerns about the budget don’t seem as relevant.
But that has been abandoned in favor of the Californian model:
And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures – supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless “procedural” votes – rather than the substantive, policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.
And it’s oddly arbitrary. Why sixty, and why two-thirds out here? Why not eighty votes, or fifty-one? Yeselson says this:
What we would be witnessing – and are still witnessing – is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.
And at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein agrees:
When Obama’s health-care reform strategy was floundering, pundits generally blamed it on tactical deficiencies: If only Obama had been firmer with Congress, or more persuasive before the nation. When the bill passes, as now looks likely, it will similarly be attributed to learning the strategic lessons of the past, and negotiating the details skillfully and navigating the politics adroitly.
But it is not any of those things, at least not primarily. Health-care reform almost failed because Democrats had 60 votes rather than 70 votes. And it will probably pass because Democrats have 60 votes rather than 55 votes. On some level, that is how it should be. The primary determinant of legislative action should be electoral majorities, not tightrope diplomacy with the legislature. But 60 votes for is an extreme rarity in American politics. The last time either party controlled that many seats was in the mid-seventies. That was not such a problem then, but polarization has become much worse over the past 30 years, so what was once possible with 55 votes, or even 50 votes, is far more difficult today.
And it is damned impossible out here in California. But Kline thinks something should be changed:
Recognizing that change, I think, is the most difficult element of building a case for structural reform. Most people are open to the idea that a political system should adapt in response to radical transformations within a nation’s political environment. But change happens slowly, and memories are short. Political scientists recognize that the filibuster has only become central in the past few decades, that political polarization roared back to life after relative consensus in the post-World War II period, and that the Senate works differently today because it does so much more. But American politics still looks much the same as it always did – two parties, three branches, November elections – and so most people think that these institutions are much as they always were.
And from out here in California, Kevin Drum jumps in with something he wrote when the Dodgers and Angels still had a chance of getting to the World Series:
Unfortunately, a local championship or two are about all the good news we’re likely to get anytime soon in the Golden State. We have structural deficits as far as the eye can see. A Republican governor took over a few years ago and cut taxes, making things even worse. Healthcare costs have gone through the roof. Unemployment is over 12%. And a rabid Republican minority in Sacramento can – and does – prevent any of these things from being seriously addressed because the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget or raise taxes.
But no schadenfreude, please. In Washington DC, federal deficits have become enormous, Republican tax cuts have made them even worse, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, unemployment is about to break double digits, and it’s nearly impossible to seriously address these problems because the Republican Party has adopted a policy of making the filibuster a routine tool of state. If you can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, you can’t pass anything of consequence these days.
In the past, California has been a bellwether for the nation, and that’s been no bad thing. But this time? Fasten your seatbelts, gang. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride indeed if it happens again.
And he adds an addendum:
All I can say is this: for years I was basically uninterested in Sacramento politics because it was such a cesspool. It made Washington DC look like a model of good government. But no longer: Sacramento is still a cesspool, but DC is catching up fast. If we keep it up much longer, the entire country may end up in the same mess we’ve made for ourselves here. That would be decidedly not a good thing.
But at least you don’t have to come to California. It’s coming to you. No science, logic, reason, or thought verified by experience. You’re all Californians now. Welcome aboard.