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A Tale of Two Californias

by: Robert Cruickshank

Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM PDT

In the wake of the Guardian's article on whether California is a failed state we're seeing a lot of other publications take up the same question, with varying results. Perhaps one of the most ridiculous and absurd attempts to discuss the issue was in TIME Magazine last week. The author, Michael Grunwald, claims California is "thriving," that the California Dream is still alive, and that we should stop our "whinery." The nut of the piece:

Ignore the California whinery. It's still a dream state. In fact, the pioneering megastate 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.

The article goes on for a couple pages in this vein, so I don't want to dignify it with too much of my precious time. Suffice it to say that a state with a 12.2% unemployment rate is not "thriving" and that much more importantly - and totally ignored by Grunwald - is that the conditions that produced the innovation and entrepreneurial success he extols is gone. Our educational system is in collapse, meaning we won't be able to produce the ideas and creators to sustain the next generation of products, technologies, and companies. Grunwald can't look at a timescale of, say, 1995 to 2007 and assume that means California in 2009 is doing fine.

Especially since his article is little more than 2003-era boosterism that assumes if a few iconic business are doing fine (and many of them are not) then the state as a whole is doing fine. Grunwald's notion of the "California Dream" appears to be one where a handful of well-known businesses are still identified with the state, and everyone else is just assumed to benefit from being near them, like the average joe who winds up at a Hollywood restaurant near a star and his agent. Grunwald prefers to sweep under the carpet mass unemployment, the collapse of social services, increasing inequality, and the evaporation of the hopes and dreams of millions. The article is a cruel insult to a state that is in very real crisis, and needs to find solutions, fast.

Of course, one can't really expect much else from TIME Magazine. A more insightful look at California's problems comes from, of all places, an article by John Judis in The New Republic. Titled End State: Is California Finished? it does a far better job of diagnosing California's very real problems. Judis paints a picture of a state that is becoming the living embodiment of John Edwards' (and before him, Governor Otto Kerner) famous claim about "two Americas." Judis recognizes that the root of California's problems is racial.

California's crisis, as read in Judis' article, is that its white residents have refused to include their Latino neighbors in the prosperity of the California Dream, and instead acquiesced to the Republicans' demand to scale back Pat Brown's California in order to prevent it from benefiting the non-white. He does not quite come out and say it, but he puts all the pieces on the table. The conclusion is not only obvious, but inescapable:

There are places in California's Central Valley, and in the exurbs where Countrywide, Wachovia, and IndyMac sold subprime mortgages, that look like downriver Detroit, but, in Menlo Park and in Oakland's Rockridge area, where I stayed during my recent visit, there were few visible signs of trouble. That's because, like its educational system, California's economy is pretty much divided in two....

What's important are the huge disparities between regions. The unemployment rate in Silicon Valley's San Mateo County is 9.2 percent, less than the national average, and unemployment is even lower around Santa Barbara or in Marin County. But it is 15.7 percent in the Stockton area, 16.7 percent in Merced, and a whopping 28.7 percent in Imperial County near the Mexican border--heavily Hispanic areas dependent on agriculture and home construction. The disparities in these figures largely reflect what is produced in those areas and who lives there....

In the past, immigrant farm laborers or roofers or grocery clerks could hope that their children would work their way up the occupational ladder--perhaps by getting a well-paid job in California's auto or aircraft industry. But, for the last two decades, these kinds of middle-income jobs in manufacturing and office work have been disappearing in the state.

There's no doubt that California's economy exhibits a high degree of racialized inequality, which manifests itself in, and then is reinforced through, the state's undemocratic politics. And yet I think Judis is wrong to assume that our state's economic crisis is solely a product of racial inequality. Many in the white middle class, those who threw the nonwhite overboard from 1978 onward, are now experiencing some of the same problems that Judis ascribed to the nonwhite populations. The collapse of education, especially higher education, is a dagger aimed directly at the heart of the white middle class's ability to perpetuate itself. As the California Budget Project realized in 2007, young college graduates have seen their incomes collapse during this decade. They too are being shut out of the California Dream by those who benefited from it. It's not just white against nonwhite, but white homeowner over 45 in a coastal county against virtually everyone else.

Judis did make the initial connection between racial inequality and Republican politics, and understands that the GOP is a central part of California's crisis:

The biggest reason for this paralysis is the radicalization of California's Republican Party. By now, this is a familiar part of the American political landscape. But it all began in California. When Brown took office, California politics was still dominated by liberal Democrats and progressive Republicans. By the mid-1960s, conservative Republicans, fueled by the backlash against the civil rights movement, the campus rebellion, and the counterculture, began to oust Republican progressives.

As I  explained at the beginning of 2009, conservative racial backlash politics goes beyond the internal battles in the 1960s GOP. Prop 13 and the subsequent logic of anti-tax politics are still deeply intertwined with it, as white Californians believe that their tax money will be used by government to help the "undeserving." The only difference between 2009 and 1979 is that today, many whites are now included in the "undeserving" class.

And that, along with the state's rich diversity and the "post-racial" attitudes among the youngest generations in the state - we who never bought into the idea that for the California Dream to survive, it had to be defined as being for the benefit of whites and nobody else - we have the opportunity to renew California's Dream by tearing down the entire edifice of Republican backlash politics. We won't produce economic security for all unless we include all in the process of building it. We won't fix our broken politics and broken government until we include everyone in the process of fixing it. That includes the state's large and underrepresented Latino population, but it also includes African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and everyone else currently denied access to the prosperity and democracy that California once stood for.

Robert Cruickshank :: A Tale of Two Californias
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Partisanship and Quentin Kopp (4.00 / 1)
San Francisco is an interesting place, and probably the only place where a Quentin Kopp could be elected. He was always something of an enigmatic moderate, and friends to both sides. He was elected to the Board of Supes as an independent, and then somehow managed to get to the State Senate without bearing a party label.  Much of that has to do with personalities, but it's hard to imagine anybody really getting elected without party in an era of term limits.

It's one of the reasons I think it might be interesting to try a proportionate representation model. I know it's not really likely to happen, but it would be great if everybody could really be represented.  

I think?

One thing TIME got right (4.00 / 1)
Near the end, the piece did note that our dysfunctional government would make recovery somewhat more difficult, saying, "...they've also straitjacketed their politicians with scads of lobbyist-produced ballot initiatives locking in huge outlays for various goodies, as well as the notorious Proposition 13, which has severely restricted local property taxes since 1978. California is also one of only three states that need a two-thirds supermajority to pass a budget or raise taxes, a virtual impossibility in its ultra-partisan legislature.... The state's economy actually grew last year, but its revenues crashed because its top earners had lower incomes and capital gains. That meant sharp cutbacks, especially in education, which in California is unusually dependent on state cash (which they didn't link back to the aformentioned Proposition 13)." They wrap up this topic by holding out hope for constitutional reform.

Product (5.00 / 1)
And yet I think Judis is wrong to assume that our state's economic crisis is solely a product of racial inequality. Many in the white middle class, those who threw the nonwhite overboard from 1978 onward, are now experiencing some of the same problems that Judis ascribed to the nonwhite populations.

 Just because you get caught up in the inferno you started,
doesn't mean you weren't trying to start the fire.  The reality is that whatever tactical errors were made in and
around 1978 regarding Prop 13, what was driving it was
two things--busing and a State Supreme Court ruling that
property taxes were unequal in funding schools and had to
be shared.  That meant that property taxes were not funding
local schools and even worse, wealthy homeowners had to pay for blacks to be bussed into their own school (hard to remember that the dominant minority was African-American then).

 It was, however, poetic justic (and inevitable) that brute-force measures would result in the worst consequences to those who supported them.  Friendly fire.

Two Californias (0.00 / 0)
There really are 2 Californias but they aren't really divided by race or income and only accidentally by Geography.
There is 1 California that is made up of the 20+ million people who live in the dysfunctional Mega Counties(LA,Orange,San Diego, Riverside & San Bernardino)and the 18+ million who live in the other 53 counties. Even more important the majority of Republicans in the Legislature are from the mega Counties. They are the ones blocking solutions to the problems that have built up in our state and are also funding sycophantic candidates in Republican races elsewhere in the state. Republican Teabaggers play on the megacounty voters disgust at the actions of thier local officials-bankruptcy in OC & SD, Meth dealing by county officials(Reps naturally) in SB- and take it out on the state at large because under prop 13 that who's in charge

Two Californias (0.00 / 0)
The Republican party is rapidly turning into a party of old angry white people, and they aren't even a majority here in Orange County.

We're moving towards one California, and the nasty old evil California, the one that barred Chinese from owning property in 1879, that fought EPIC and stopped Okies at the border, that is anti-immigrant, anti-labor, and just plain mean, is getting old and dying, or moving to Nevada or Idaho.

Even in the belly of the beast, Orange County, there aren't enough old angry white Republicans to elect Toll Road Jerry Amante in AD-70 or to flog Minuteman Allan Mansoor in AD-68.

OC Progressive is Gus Ayer, former Fountain Valley Council member.  

The two articles may not actually contradict each other (5.00 / 1)
and I think both have a good deal of truth in them.

Both the boosterism and the dualistic nature of California have been built into the fabric of our society from the arrival of the Spaniards continuing to this day. The boosterism has been a significant factor in wealth creation in this State. It is still in play today, and it still plays a role in wealth creation and protection. Boosterism is a form of advertising and advertising does work. California has an excellent track record in this (snark). Time Magazine's take is indeed a bit breathless, but the examples it cites of California's impact on the rest of the country and the areas in which it continues to play a leading economic and intellectual role are real. Michigan this is not. The California boosters are still at it. In fact one of California's futurist/booster organizations, the Bay Area Council, is hard at work pushing the Constitutional Convention.

The racial divide discussed in The New Republic is real as well, but not new by any means. This divide was laid deeply from the date of initial Euro contact with native peoples, and continued through exclusionary laws toward Asians and looking the other way as California, officially a free state, in fact enslaved the native people and was the State where more African Americans and natives were lynched than anywhere else in the country.

Simplistic summary: There was a 25 year period (roughly 1950 - 1975) when so much wealth was created, when tax rates were still progressive and when racial equality was lacking, that a huge white middle class was created. By the 1970's the US (and CA) owned so much of the world's wealth and political power that during the next 25 years of increasingly regressive taxes, and growing world competition for production and consumption, the white middle class hardly noticed it was in decline. Also, the influx of women entering the workforce blunted the effects of economic loss for many families and furthered a sense of denial.

Now in California (and the US too) several bubbles are bursting at the same time. We no longer have the same % of the world's wealth and political influence (in 2000 California's economy was the 5th biggest in the world), environmental resources once treated as limitless (water, fish, soil, etc.) are clearly degraded and limited, civil rights law is more firmly is more embedded in practice than ever before and we a huge demographic shift such that no ethnic group is now the majority of the population.

This is shock sans doctrine. Disaster and opportunity.

Guess I still have San Francisco hippie values, although I'm an engineer

The Time post is about the other CA (0.00 / 0)
Wealthy suburbs like Palo Alto, Marin and parts of Contra Costa County in the north (and others I don't know which elsewhere)still have good public schools funneling priviledged offspring to the pipeline of success and innovation. Many Asians have been able to join that pipeline over the last 30 years or so. If we fail to recognize this, we won't accurately figure out a winning political message and strategy to address the downward mobility of the majority. It's a complex mosaic.

Guess I still have San Francisco hippie values, although I'm an engineer

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