California dreams turn nightmares

Forty years ago I drove across the United States traversing mid-winter blizzards before entering the blissful warmth and light of California, a state blessed not only with stunning topography but also a diverse and hugely talented population, a top-tier educational system, and a culture of freewheeling, sky’s-the-limit innovation. We cruised the sinuous curves of Highway 1 on the spectacular Big Sur coastline crooning, ‘California Dreamin.’

Fast forward four decades and the California dream has turned to nightmare. On July 1, facing a $24 billion budget shortfall, the state began issuing thousands of contractors IOUs that major banks warned they wouldn’t honour. California’s celebrity governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has presided over the end of the state’s fiscal viability, but the origins of the calamity are more deeply rooted, in contradictory and delusional states of mind as much as institutional dysfunction.

Hyper-individualism, self-indulgence, and the dreamer’s contempt for everyday realities and responsibilities have produced a political system of epic paralysis.

Diversity

The most diverse state in the Union, California is also the most culturally and politically divided. Add to this emulsion several key policies, most of them enacted by voters through the initiative process, that have left the state increasingly incapable of meeting the obligations those voters expect it to fulfil:

Proposition 13, a 1978 voter-enacted law, slashed the property taxes that funded the state’s top-flight educational system and other services, in the absence of which its schools have plummeted to the bottom of national rankings. A large proportion of California students graduate from high school altogether unprepared to participate in a 21st century economy.

A 1994 ‘three strikes’ mandatory sentencing law enacted by crime-wary voters converted thousands of minor offenders into ‘lifers’ and has swelled the prison population by 82 per cent since. The prison system now houses 1,70,000 inmates and costs taxpayers $13 billion a year, more than all the state’s colleges and universities combined.

Yet the legislature itself is a study in institutional incompetence. Riven by partisan divides, the state’s apportionment system militates against compromise, electing only the more extreme elements of the electorate. To make matters worse, tax increases, now desperately needed to fill the yawning budget shortfall, can only be enacted with a two-thirds vote of the legislature. This stipulation gives minority anti-tax Republicans lethal veto power over any tax increases.
Watching California’s woes, the rest of the country and world, long both envious and resentful of the state’s outsized share of good fortune, feel a certain satisfaction in seeing confirmation of their scepticism.

Cost-cutting

Now, drowning in its sea of red ink, the state must close most of its parks, radically slash educational budgets and health care services for the poor, furlough state employees, curtail crucial government operations, and release thousands of prisoners from jail. No one can calculate the cumulative impact of these unprecedented measures.

But it’s already clear, for California as for the entire US, that we are at childhood’s end. Some observers say an increasingly under-educated populace, disincentives for business development, and decaying public infrastructure and services will drive away the kinds of catalytic initiatives that have traditionally made the state a magnetic field of dreams.
For better and worse, California remains a state of both dreams and denial. It has always evoked both the best and worst human impulses, attracting both dreamers and schemers, visionaries and scam artistes. And it still hatches new movements like rabbits out of a hat: California cuisine and organic supermarkets, social networks, renewable energy experiments, and an irrepressible culture of innovation.

One of the most enduring and endearing sources of its inspiration is its open-hearted embrace of newcomers. Arrive here and you’re home. No one asks who your parents were or what they did. You can still birth a world-shaking new idea here and find enough like-minded eccentrics to help you deliver it. The once and future California will never cease being golden. And like gold, it will never cease attracting dreamers, knaves and fools.

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