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The Californias I Have Known

September 5, 2011

California! With only a few days remaining in Omaha during what has been a very productive research trip thus far, I’m looking forward to a brief return to my home state. True, between copying ever-more Afghan material from the wonderful Arthur Paul Collection and dipping into postmodern literature and, later this Labor Day, a trip to the movies to see The Interrupters, a film by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams), I’ve managed, I think, to squeeze enough eclecticism and variety into my Omaha days. But with relatives getting married in Northern California, it will soon be time to squeeze into the car with my family and make a road trip up from Los Angeles, along Highway 101, all the way up to Eureka, in the very north of the state.

Carson House in Eureka, Destination of Your Humble Narrator Very Soon ...

Unfortunately, things are not looking so good at home in California overall. I am always slightly amused and a bit frustrated when friends from Princeton or the East Coast, supremely talented, well-educated, and charismatic, move to the Bay Area, often to take jobs in the tech industry, start-ups, or management consultant firms in the area. These people end up having what seem like comfortable lives: they live in converted industrial spaces in San Francisco or work at dynamic companies in the Peninsula. Some of them, claiming to have embraced a West Coast individualism, end up joining … other like-minded individualists as they celebrate their individualism by all going to boba cafés, Mexican restaurants, and to the hills around Silicon Valley for hiking. Sometimes, the more adventurous go on longer weekend trips to places like Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Rosa, Point Reyes, or Napa – all beautiful areas, no doubt, but still only a fraction of the total area of California. They, like myself, come to embody the migratory patterns of highly-credentialed young Americans; at least in ours twenties, we live in places like San Francisco, Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and DC – and maybe London if you’re adventurous. Places like Omaha, Houston, San Antonio, or New Orleans – American cities with some of the most dynamic job growth in the USA – don’t fit into the geography of the young professional class by and large. California still represents a dream, but more often one of high-end luxury consumption than democratic middle class prosperity.

San Francisco: great for young, single, wealthy professionals, but maybe not a great place for job growth or raising kids

Walter Russell Mead, an American writer whose blog I thoroughly enjoy, had a post on some of the difficulties facing the Golden State that I only recently read. In the post, which speculates on whether California is a failed state or not, Mead covers many of the institutional and financial issues facing the hugely diverse state. As someone who has lived in the state for the majority of my life, and has more of an emotional stake (if not, as I will discuss, a personal stake) in the state’s future than some who see the Bay Area metro as an airstrip disconnected from a state where people raise children, get sick, and retire, I found much of his analysis hugely compelling. As was widely reported earlier this May, the US Supreme Court forced California to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 inmates over the next two years as a result of overcrowding. Even if you view this as a violation of the state’s sovereignty, the fact that the case even became an issue reflects the myriad failures of welfare state institutions in a state as large, both geographically and demographically, as California. As Mead writes:

Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point.  Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters.  Your schools aren’t educating enough of your kids to make an honest living.  Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away.  Your management systems must be fouled and confused to the max for you to create something so dysfunctional, so wildly beyond your means, that the Supreme Court of the United States (wisely or foolishly is another question) starts to micromanage your jails.

Indeed, as numerous studies show, California increasingly ranks towards the bottom of rankings of US states for tax burdens, performance of public schools, quality of infrastructure, automobile traffic, and high gas prices. Anecdotally, every time that I return to Los Angeles, I am continually disappointed by the quality of LAX compared to other major cities’ airports. The quality of roads has declined significantly in the last ten to fifteen years, and while friends and colleagues have occasionally, partly fairly, made fun of me for coming from an élitist background – I went to private elementary and secondary schools before going to the Ivy League Princeton - the fact is that even the local public high schools in my area, which were some of the best in California, had by national standards relatively low test scores, low SAT scores, and were massively overcrowded. Classroom sizes of 30 students or more were the norm, and while I do not doubt that schools like Peninsula High and Palos Verdes High have excellent teachers, the many families who employed me as a private college admissions counselor repeatedly aired their frustration about low standards, byzantine regulations for students seeking to get into AP courses, and an overwhelmed college counseling bureaucracy. Throw in high property prices and taxes, and it is not surprising that Los Angeles’ net employment dropped by around 8 percent in the last decade. (True, the élite college graduates are still getting élite consulting and tech jobs, but even during the possible renaissance of a tech bubble since 2001, San Francisco has lost 13 percent of jobs over the same time frame.) While I have thought at times of attempting to get into politics, preferably based out of where I’m from, I have always felt jealous of friends at Oxford from smaller states – Montana and Mississippi come to mind – the population of which can be orders of magnitude smaller than Los Angeles, let alone California. It’s much harder to make a name for yourself, or get tagged as a rising star if you come from a more populous area.

The United States of ... California?

In his essay, Mead proposes one solution to the current crisis in California: break up the thing into several smaller, and hopefully better-managed units. While any such proposal would have to be thought through with care, as Mead recognizes, I’m very open to such discussions. When friends and I discuss the problems of governance in the United States today, one slightly reassuring point we can agree on is that sheer size and diversity typically make a place difficult to govern: India, a country a third the size of the United States but far more internally diverse, is famously impossible to govern. Even Germany, a much smaller country with a better record of governance, finds itself perpetually squabbling over the proper responsibilities of the federal government and the various Bundesländer.

California fits this description of large size causing administrative chaos. To provide a concrete example. the Superior Court of Los Angeles, where my father practices law, is itself the largest trial court in the United States, and one of the largest legal systems in the entire world. The system employs 5,400 people, has the largest trial building in the entire United States, and handles 3 million jurors every year. Throw in the variety of Blue Social Model benefits (healthcare, pensions, lifetime employment, difficult-to-fire non-tenured employees) and you have a behemoth of a bureaucracy almost impossible to administer. The appellate caseload the Superior Court generates is huge, necessitating another highly complex (the USA’s largest) appeals court system, necessitating a California Supreme Court that has to hear cases from highly diverse backgrounds. Even if these institutions are staffed by competent and highly-credentialed judges such as Goodwin Liu (Stanford-Oxford-Yale Law), the question raises itself: what do these people actually know about life, traditions, or institutions in the California desert or the northeast of the state?

So what would a division look like? The team at Via Meadia proposes something like the map above: a Los Angeles mega-region including Santa Barbara and Orange County (the latter of which is a Republican stronghold, for better or worse); a southern region encompassing San Diego and some of the Mexico border areas; a Bay Area and Central Coast complex that can accomodate the environmental and pro-regulation Left as well as the Silicon Valley business community; a Central Valley-dominated unit that would include Sacramento; and a northern part of the state that would encompass the more libertarian northwest as well as the marijuana-growing northern coast of the state.

Needless to say, such a plan would raise plenty of institutional issues. It might make the already highly complex practice of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, already by far the largest and most diverse in the USA, even more complex as it would have four states added to it with new, emergent political directions and institutional preferences. Breaking up California in this way would potentially add eight new Senators to the mix in Congress, although the Central Valley district and the Northern California could well vote in Republicans. Without denigrating the work of public employees too much, it could shake up the power that public employees’ unions currently hold in California. Given the state’s dismal performance in education, as well as the indefensible tuitions hikes at the University of California under the present regime, decentralizing the system could create space for education reforms that are all but impossible today. Voters who feel comfortable paying $30,000 a year for “public higher education” at institutions that pay their executives $800,000 a year along with lifetime $350,000 / year pensions would be welcome to sign onto such a model at a doomed Berkeley; others who are not millionaires could retool fine institutions like UC Davis, Merced, Riverside, and San Diego into lower-cost IHEs with minimal administrative staff and the best teachers they can find.

"Public education" that costs $30,000/year with Wall Street salaries for chancellors: not in a reformed California

San Francisco would be free to go in the direction of a high-tax, high-regulation, high-quality of life model on its own; regions and citizens disturbed by inaction on the part of local élites towards the illegal immigration of demographics that do not value education could enact stricter immigration rules according to their needs. Combined and with greater representation, the five units could lobby Washington more effectively for a sane and effective immigration reform policy that keeps America open to talent while also demanding that immigrants assimilate, work hard, and pursue an education. True, some of the new immigrants to California came from regions of Mexico and Central America that were devastated by the flight of industrial capital to China in the last 10-15 years; but in lieu of a sane immigration policy, California liberals should have attempted to greet these people with open arms as well as a stern demand to learn the language, educate themselves, and contribute to an American culture. Too often, they celebrated ethnic particularism and patriarchal cultures which put little emphasis on education. The results have not been good.

In the end, I hope to find ways to contribute to a discussion about the future of California, even – and perhaps especially – if it entails breaking the state up into manageable units. I have very few regrets about my own childhood in California: living in a coastal region near LA, I was able to explore horse trails in a Mediterranean climate. Walking my dog in the hills in the morning or evening, I can see the fog coming in over the land, obscuring the floating jewel of Catalina Island, out there in the ocean. I have fond memories of taking the 91 out to Palm Springs to visit my grandmother. What was once a sleepy desert town that congratulated itself too much on an awesome 20th century tradition has welcomed a dynamic, cosmopolitan gay community that mixes well, as far as I can tell, with wealthy East Coast sunbirds and the elderly who still play golf and tennis. People in the northern part of the state remind me of Midwesterners in their comparative friendliness, and tramping around the redwood groves around Eureka makes me feel like I’m in a Triassic rain forest. In short, it’s a beautiful place, somewhere I’d like to be part of my life.

That said, there is at present little drawing me back. There remains a possibility that I will allow myself to be roped into the young professional circles around the Bay Area: many in the tech-community are brilliant, some of the most big-picture thinkers I’ve every met. Perhaps I can rejoice in my weekend hikes and trips to the boba cafés. But pursuing a teaching or academic career in the state could be a disaster. The moral appeal that comes with teaching at a public institution tends to evaporate when you realize that you are primarily teaching out-of-state students and those who could find the $30K a year. A career devoted to enhancing the upward mobility of others becomes a life of academic obscurity while working for corporate-salaried administrators. As noted before, I would love to be part of a constructive political conversation about the future of California, but there are fewer open doors, fewer easy-to-climb hierarchies than the ones my friends from Mississippi and Montana face. Without reform in the next 10-15 years, I fear that the place of childhood memories will become a state which the rich and connected drop into for weekends near the Bay, the poor and uneducated migrate to for a marginal improvement, and the Californians who grew up in the place in the 80s and 90s increasingly turn their futures towards states with better governance and prospects.

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