In the Ideal State

California seemed like a good idea. For a long time California was the place to be – where Ozzie and Harriet lived, and Gidget did too. The weather was fine, the schools the best in the nation – college, in our first-rate state universities, was pretty much free – and the Beach Boys were surfing, or at least singing about surfing. There was money to be made too – aerospace was booming, new technologies spawned new big corporations, and there were jobs for everyone. Everyone had a nice house in the endless but pleasant sprawling suburbs, with two cars in the garage and a cool hotrod parked in the street for the teenager – or so it seemed. Hollywood was here too. So it was clear. California was the place to go to make it big, or to reinvent yourself, or both. It always was. After the Gold Rush of 1849, which brought a young Mark Twain out this way, somehow this became the place of quick amazing success, even after the gold was gone. There was that symbolic Grapes of Wrath tale, where the Joad family, driven out of the Dust Bowl, searches for some sort of California Dream, and that didn’t go well at all – but they had the right idea. Even in the late sixties the Mommas and Papas were California Dreaming, and there was that Summer of Love up in San Francisco. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. This was the future. California was always the future, the ideal state.

Then it turned sour, as Michael Grunwald explained in a Time cover story in 2009:

California, you may have heard, is an apocalyptic mess of raging wildfires, soaring unemployment, mass foreclosures and political paralysis. It’s dysfunctional. It’s ungovernable. Its bond rating is barely above junk. It’s so broke, it had to hand out IOUs while its leaders debated how many prisoners to release and parks to close. Nevada aired ads mocking California’s business climate to lure its entrepreneurs. The media portray California as a noir fantasyland of overcrowded schools, perpetual droughts, celebrity breakdowns, illegal immigration, hellish congestion and general malaise, captured in headlines like “Meltdown on the Ocean” and “California’s Wipeout Economy” and “Will California Become America’s First Failed State?”

We blew it. We tried something new, a sunny conservative with a different view of how things should be run. Our new Governor Reagan presided over the dismantling of the schools and services and the severe hollowing out of the tax base – to make us all freer, in the conservative sense of the word, where government is never the solution, as it’s always the problem. Grunwald, however, was saying that the California Dream was not quite dead yet:

It’s still a dream state. In fact, the pioneering mega-state that gave us microchips, freeways, blue jeans, tax revolts, extreme sports, energy efficiency, health clubs, Google searches, Craigslist, iPhones and the Hollywood vision of success is still the cutting edge of the American future – economically, environmentally, demographically, culturally and maybe politically. It’s the greenest and most diverse state, the most globalized in general and most Asia-oriented in particular at a time when the world is heading in all those directions. It’s also an unparalleled engine of innovation, the mecca of high tech, biotech and now clean tech. In 2008, California’s wipeout economy attracted more venture capital than the rest of the nation combined. Somehow its supposedly hostile business climate has nurtured Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Twitter, Disney, Cisco, Intel, eBay, YouTube, MySpace, the Gap and countless other companies that drive the way we live.

Our California Republicans out here couldn’t kill all that, as much as they tried, by making this a place where the primary and secondary schools are now among the worst in the nation and you have to pay sky-high tuition even for the state universities, where the roads and bridges are falling apart and the state is always broke, on purpose, so no services are available, because there should be no state services, just freedom, as a matter of principle. That was their idea, but the innovators and empire builders still stayed. Maybe it was the weather. They sent their kids to private schools.

Then the inevitable happened. Folks out here finally got tired of the Republicans. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned out to be a bad joke. We brought back Jerry Brown, who was our eccentric Governor Moonbeam in the eighties and the son of Pat Brown, the governor who presided over the building of all the new freeways and the state’s amazing university system. California started working again. It might not be the ideal state, but it’s working again. All it took was ignoring the freedom-loving Republicans. Anything can be taken too far.

The Republicans didn’t like that at all, but what were they going to do? No one would vote for them, and that worried the party at the national level. California couldn’t be the ideal state. That would be Texas, or maybe Florida, so we had another visitor this month:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott swung through Los Angeles on Monday as part of a mission to lure California businesses across the country to the Sunshine State. Scott arrived Sunday and has been traveling throughout Southern California, touting Florida’s job growth and tax cuts during his four-year tenure.

At a Monday luncheon in Woodland Hills, he told a group of about 100 business representatives about his efforts to “drive down the cost of doing business.”

“The elected officials don’t get it, they don’t get that you can’t regulate everything out there,” Scott said at a meeting of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. “You can’t tax everything out there and expect people to prosper… that’s not the way you build an economy.”

Scott seized on the different tax structure in Florida – no state income tax and lower gas and capital gains taxes – as reasons to consider relocating.

“You have more taxes than I can imagine getting rid of,” Scott said.

Ah, Florida is the ideal state, except for the facts of the matter:

A spokesman for California Gov. Jerry Brown said he could “certainly understand why our friend from Florida is interested in visiting the Golden State.”

“Our budget is balanced, our credit rating is up and we created more jobs than any other state last year,” the spokesman, Evan Westrup, said in a statement. “As one of the 60 million tourists expected to visit California this year, we hope the governor’s stay is both enjoyable and educational.”

Yes, we’re still making fun of Republicans out here, but this sort of thing happens all the time:

Scott’s jaunt out West is not the first by a Republican governor targeting California businesses. His trip follows a series of attention-grabbing visits by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry over the last two years. During a visit last June, Perry showed up in Sacramento driving a Tesla Model S sedan – part of an effort to convince Tesla Motors to build a battery plant in the Lone Star state. Tesla eventually decided to build the plant in Nevada.

Perry also took credit for luring Toyota Motor Co.’s U.S. headquarters from Torrance to a suburb of Dallas. But a Toyota executive said the move was part of a longer-term strategic decision to be closer to the company’s manufacturing base in the South.

And none of it matters much:

While political leaders like to tout corporate re-locations, economic data show that interstate business moves account for a tiny fraction of any state’s economy. A 2010 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that the net loss of jobs to other states from 1992 to 2006 accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of California’s total job base.

“The migration numbers are always microscopic,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington policy group that criticizes state incentives to lure businesses. “Every state wins a few and loses a few every year.”

All anyone can determine from any of this is that Rick Scott is kind of a jerk:

Scott has sent letters in recent years to tech giants such as Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. urging them to relocate to Florida. He has also targeted businesses in other states, including Pennsylvania and Colorado.

In 2013, Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear sent a letter to Scott slamming what he called the latter’s “crude method of recruitment.”

As for Texas, last year Phillip Longman had a few things to say about that ideal state:

Is Texas our future? The question got kicked around during the last presidential campaign when Texas Governor Rick Perry was briefly riding high. Everywhere Perry went he appealed to Republican primary voters by describing what he called the “Texas Miracle.” As Perry told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, “Since June 2009, about 48 percent of all the jobs created in America were in Texas. Come add to it.” In his stump speech Perry would click off what he said were the four major reasons his state had come to lead the nation in job creation – without ever forgetting a one of them. They were, he said, low taxes, low regulation, tort reform, and “don’t spend all the money.”

Rick Perry didn’t get very far, but his message did:

The debate over whether Texas has anything important to teach the rest of America has continued to build. One reason is that even though Perry didn’t get to replace Barack Obama in the White House, he has continued to boast about his Texas Miracle, including in radio ads that have caused an uproar everywhere they’ve aired across the country. “Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible,” Perry intones in one, before pitching California businesses to move to Texas. In another, he announces, “I have a word of advice for employers frustrated by Illinois’s shortsighted approach to business. You need to get out while there is still time. The escape route leads straight to Texas.”

When Perry launched a similar radio campaign attacking New York for excessive regulation and inviting its businesses to “Go Big in Texas,” he inspired the comedian Lewis Black to strike back with a “Don’t F*** with NY” video that aired on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “You say we got too much regulation,” Black countercharged. “We’ve got Wall Street. They break the law for a living and never get punished.”

Yet that observation wasn’t enough to prevent more and more rank-and-file conservatives, along with a growing number of nonpartisan observers, both in and out of Texas, from also taking up talk of the Texas Miracle.

Longman goes on to discuss which conservatives were saying what about just why Texas was so wonderful, and the six or seven books that said the same thing, but none of it was so:

The first and most obvious question to ask about the Texas boom in jobs is how much it simply reflects the boom in Texas oil and gas production. Texas boosters say the answer is very little, and play up how much the Texas economy has diversified since the 1970s. And indeed, Texas has more high-tech, knowledge-economy jobs than it did forty years ago. But so does the rest of America, and the stubborn truth is that, despite there being more computer programmers and medical specialists in Texas than a generation ago, oil and gas account for a rapidly rising, not declining, share of the Texas economy.

Unless you’ve been to Texas lately, you might have missed just how gigantic its latest oil and gas boom has become. Thanks to fracking and other new drilling techniques, plus historically high world oil prices, Texas oil production increased by 126 percent just between 2010 and 2013.

Then oil prices dropped to half of what they were, and stayed there. What else do they have? Not much:

As the state’s boosters like to brag, that Texas does not have an income tax. But Texas has sales and property taxes that make its overall burden of taxation on low-wage families much heavier than the national average, while the state also taxes the middle class at rates as high as or higher than in California. For instance, non-elderly Californians with family income in the middle 20 percent of the income distribution pay combined state and local taxes amounting to 8.2 percent of their income, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy; by contrast, their counterparts in Texas pay 8.6 percent.

And unlike in California, middle-class families in Texas don’t get the advantage of having rich people share equally in the cost of providing government services. The top 1 percent in Texas have an effective tax rate of just 3.2 percent. That’s roughly two-fifths the rate that’s borne by the middle class, and just a quarter the rate paid by all those low-wage “takers” at the bottom 20 percent of the family income distribution. This Robin-Hood-in-reverse system gives Texas the fifth-most-regressive tax structure in the nation.

Middle- and lower-income Texans in effect make up for the taxes the rich don’t pay in Texas by making do with fewer government services, such as by accepting a K-12 public school system that ranks behind forty-one other states, including Alabama, in spending per student.

There’s much more of this. There was no miracle, and maybe it’s time the Republicans learned a few things from California. That’s what E. J. Dionne argues here:

Jim Brulte, California’s Republican chairman, has sobering but useful words for his party’s leaders and 2016 candidates: If they don’t learn from what happened to the GOP here, they may doom themselves to repeating its decidedly unpleasant experience.

“California is the leading edge of the country’s demographic changes,” Brulte said in an interview. “Frankly, Republicans in California did not react quickly enough to them, and we have paid a horrible price.”

One measure of the cost: In the three presidential elections of the 1980s, California voted twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George H. W. Bush. The state has not gone Republican since, and it won’t get any easier in 2016.

The hole is deep enough that Brulte has concentrated his own energies on rebuilding the party from the bottom up. He has enjoyed some real successes at the local and county levels, and the GOP eliminated the Democrats’ veto-proof majorities in the state legislature in the 2014 midterms.

But they’re still massively outnumbered in the state Senate and Assembly, and Democrats have won all of California’s statewide offices in three of the last four elections, and that hasn’t happened since 1882, the year Jesse James was shot in the back of the head and killed by Robert Ford. Things change, and that’s the problem:

The principal cause of the GOP’s troubles is its alienation of Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans in a state whose population is now a majority nonwhite. Republicans can win in 2016 without carrying California, but the party’s struggles here highlight the extent to which the GOP is making its life in presidential years very difficult with its increasingly hard line on immigration, its image as a bastion for older, white conservatives, and its solicitude for Americans with very high incomes. When House Republicans in Washington voted to repeal the estate tax last week, it was helping all of 5,400 of the wealthiest households in America, not exactly a move with mass appeal.

California is different:

As has often been the case in American history, California is simply the harbinger of changes – in this case demographic – that are happening more slowly elsewhere. “The one thing no one can stop,” says Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat who was elected to Congress here in 2014, “is that every month, the rest of America looks more like California.”

The Republicans’ problem with Latino voters is especially pronounced here. The passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 with the strong support of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson – the ballot measure barred illegal immigrants from a variety of state services – simultaneously alienated Hispanic voters from the GOP and mobilized many of them into the political process.

The same thing is now happening nationally. The growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the GOP has cut the Republicans’ Latino share of the vote from the 40-percent range for George W. Bush to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. The party’s strenuous opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will only make this problem more acute.

But even more remarkably, Republicans have also suffered severe declines among Asian-Americans. According to the exit polls, a majority of Asian-Americans voted for George H. W. Bush in 1988. But in 2012, Romney won only 26 percent of their ballots.

One thing leads to another:

Republican opposition to the Dream Act, designed to give relief to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as minors, especially rankled Asian-Americans, Lieu said: “Republicans were saying, ‘Come support us, we like you, but we want to deport your children.'”

That won’t fly in California, and soon it won’t fly anywhere else – and no one wants to move to Texas, or move to Florida either. Ideal or not, California is what you get. Deal with it, or don’t.

On the other hand, now there’s Joel Kotkin with Big Idea: California Is So Over – “California’s drought and how it’s handled show just what kind of place the Golden State is becoming: feudal, super-affluent and with an impoverished interior. California has met the future, and it really doesn’t work.”

Kotkin has his bill of particulars:

As the mounting panic surrounding the drought suggests, the Golden State, once renowned for meeting human and geographic challenges, is losing its ability to cope with crises. As a result, the great American land of opportunity is devolving into something that resembles feudalism, a society dominated by rich and poor, with little opportunity for upward mobility for the state’s middle- and working classes.

The water situation reflects this breakdown in the starkest way. Everyone who follows California knew it was inevitable we would suffer a long-term drought. Most of the state – including the Bay Area as well as greater Los Angeles – is semi-arid, and could barely support more than a tiny fraction of its current population. California’s response to aridity has always been primarily an engineering one that followed the old Roman model of siphoning water from the high country to service cities and farms.

But since the 1970s, California’s water system has become the prisoner of politics and posturing. The great aqueducts connecting the population centers with the great Sierra snowpack are all products of an earlier era—the Los Angeles aqueduct (1913), Hetch-Hetchy (1923), the Central Valley Project (1937), and the California Aqueduct (1974). The primary opposition to expansion has been the green left, which rejects water storage projects as irrelevant.

Yet at the same time greens and their allies in academia and the mainstream press are those most likely to see the current drought as part of a climate change-induced reduction in snowpack. That many scientists disagree with this assessment is almost beside the point. Whether climate change will make things better or worse is certainly an important concern, but California was going to have problems meeting its water needs under any circumstances.

Yes, the politics of water out here is nasty – they made a movie about that – but all politics is nasty. Kotkin, however, sees bigger issues:

If you look at California’s greatest achievements as a society, the Pat Brown legacy stands at the core. The California Aqueduct turned vast stretches of the Central Valley into one of the most productive farming regions in the world. The freeway system, now in often shocking disrepair, allowed for the construction of mass suburbia that offered millions a quality of life never experienced by previous generations. At the same time the development of energy resources – California still boasts the nation’s third-largest oil production – helped create a huge industrial base that included aerospace, semiconductors, and a host of specialized industries, from logistics to garment manufacturing.

In contrast, Jerry Brown has waged a kind of oedipal struggle against his father’s legacy. Like many Californians, he recoiled against the sometimes haphazard and even ugly form of development that plowed through much of the state. Cutting off water is arguably the most effective way to stop all development, and promote Brown’s stated goal of eliminating suburban “sprawl.” It is typical that his first target for cutbacks this year has been the “lawns” of the middle-class suburbanite, a species for which he has shown little interest or tolerance.

Jerry Brown is too timid and careful, or something. Perhaps he’s being sensible. Aren’t conservatives supposed to like that? Perhaps not, but this is the core of things:

Ultimately this is a story of a state that has gotten tired, having lost its “animal spirits” for the policy equivalent of a vegan diet. Increasingly it’s all about how the elites in the state – who cluster along the expensive coastal areas – feel about themselves. Even Brown knows that his environmental agenda will do little, or nothing, to combat climate change, given the already minimal impact of the state on carbon emissions compared to escalating fossil fuel use in China, India and elsewhere. But the cosmopolitan former Jesuit gives more priority to his spiritual service to Gaia than the needs of his non-affluent constituents.

And thus all is lost:

What we are witnessing the breakdown of a once-expansive, open society into one dominated by a small group of plutocrats, largely in Silicon Valley, with an “amen” crew among the low-information donors of Hollywood, the public unions, the green lobby, and wealthy real estate developers favored by Brown’s pro-density policies. This coalition backs Brown and helps maintain the state’s essentially one-party system. No one is more adamant about reducing people’s carbon footprint than the jet set of Silicon Valley or the state’s planning elite, even if they choose not to live in a manner that they instruct all others.

This fundamentally hypocritical regime remains in place because it works – for the powerful and well-placed.

This man is outraged:

Like medieval peasants, millions of Californians have been force to submit to the theology of our elected high priest and his acolytes, leaving behind any aspirations that the Golden State can work for them too.

Joel Kotkin is the RC Hobbs Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, one of the last Republican enclaves out here, and David Atkins replies:

California isn’t Texas. We’re smarter and more patient than that.

We know that without addressing climate change, nothing we do in the short-term to alleviate drought issues is going to matter all that much. The droughts will get harsher and more severe, which will eventually flip the conversation from an annoyance about giving up almonds and front lawns to an existential question about whether parts of the state are even habitable. The only way to handle it is to lead the nation on climate change abatement, setting a gold standard as the nation’s most prosperous and most populous state.

We also know that no matter how much we spend on freeways, the state’s population and projected growth is such that we need alternatives, including but not limited to high-speed trains. The need for and efficacy of high-speed rail isn’t theoretical. Anyone who has been to Europe, China or Japan has seen that their rail services are heavily used and light years beyond anything we have in the states. There may come a day when self-driving cars provide greater efficiency and safety to freeway commutes, and when hydrogen and electric vehicles reduce the carbon emissions of all that freeway traffic. But that day is not today, and alternatives will be necessary regardless.

Fortunately for us, Californians are also aware that draining all of our natural resources and killing all of our wildlife is not a good plan for the future. Permanently destroying our wetlands and driving species to extinction so that frackers, golfers and almond farmers can continue to abuse exorbitant amounts of water is not the answer. It’s not just public policy makers that understand this, but the majority of California voters: much of the wetlands restoration is enshrined into California’s state constitution via the initiative process.

California actually is a good idea:

California, as usual, will survive just fine. The drought will eventually end; our forward-thinking climate policies will do much to reduce the severity of future droughts; a combination of wise planning and conservation will protect the public and the environment; our progressive transportation policies will ensure multi-modal options even as California-based entrepreneurs like Google and Elon Musk work to make car travel smarter and more sustainable; our immigration policies will continue to make our diversity one of our greatest strengths; and our economic policies will continue do much to mitigate the ill effects of wealth and income inequality exacerbated by conservative economic policy by providing education, healthcare and decent safety net to all.

What’s not to like about that, unless providing education, healthcare and a decent safety net to all is an assault on freedom, making it so people can’t take care of themselves? Well, we tried that out here for a few years. We didn’t like it much. That wasn’t the ideal state. We’re working on that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to In the Ideal State

  1. Rick says:

    I remember thinking that electing a Democratic governor, then immediately recalling him and electing Arnold, was a sign of just how fucked-up California’s political system was, allowing way-too-much micromanagement by citizens with its referendums, but it looks like that problem has, at least for the time being, gone away.

    I gather that Jerry Brown seems to be doing a great job so far, what with his waging war on lawns and all, but as for making the state livable in the long run, I’m still at a loss to understand what his long-term plan might be. Is it to stop encouraging people to move to a state that is essentially a big desert, by stopping construction of new ways to import water to sustain them in their lavish life-style?

    For example, could we discourage migration by refusing to expand our highway systems? And if so, the question then is, should we?

    It seems almost inevitable that, two to three hundred years from now, humans will be living all schmushed together in over-crowded dystopian communities, with not enough water to go around, and traveling on clogged arteries, whatever form they may take.

    And I’m not yet convinced that anyone out there, even Governor Moonbeam, is thinking that far ahead.

    Rick

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