The Late Great State of California

California has been depicted as a “failed state”: leading the nation in unemployment, adult illiteracy, lowest bond ratings, the near lowest school scores, people on welfare.  With most of the rest of the nation, we share the increasing disparity between rich and poor, the loss of high paying jobs and their replacement with low paying/ no benefit jobs, the decaying infrastructure and the feeble half-hearted repairs. The present election engenders zero hope and less interest in voting.

Optimists and realists have turned their hopes to an entire revision of the state constitution. Remaking California,  edited by Jeff Lustig (Heyday Press, $16.95) brings together a collection of essays debating these issues and providing essential  facts and background stories.  Particularly valuable is the political columnist  Dan Walters’ terse, very well informed political  history, “Decline and Fall”, of the downward slide of the Golden State and the reasons for it.

Would abolishing the pointless and redundant state senate and enlarging the assembly reenergize voters and localism?  Can we protect the home owners in their  castles without collecting no taxes from speculators and banks?  Would a simple majority to pass the budget end the annual charade of budget impasse?  What follows is a response to the stimulation of this book.

In the fifties, 35 million people streamed across the new interstate system Moving West—largely to California.  they were greeted by large bill boards promising “No Down Payment” and hundreds of thousands of tract houses for under $10,000, were sold.  To build these houses, and fence God’s Little 1/4 Acre required millions of acres of ancient fir and redwood trees to be cut down.  To connect them up required thousands of miles of “freeways”; to water the lawns and flush the toilets and provide the frozen packages of vegetables (10 for a dollar) required every river in the state to be placed in cement canals and moved from the wet north to the dry south down the Central Valley.  The great film Chinatown depicts the sinister Polanski slitting the nose of “Nosey” reporter Jack Nicholson— but that sinister beginning was soon replaced by the smiling Governor “Pat” Brown.  His optimistic water vision involved not just every river of the north but dreamed of heading north all the way to the mighty Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

Today redwood that sold then for less than 3 cents a foot sells for 4 dollars a foot.

The G.I. Bill had democratized and greatly expanded the university systems and none was more splendid than the University of California. When Clark Kerr became President of the system he could brag that half of all the Nobel Prize winners of the western hemisphere were working for U.C.

The great U.C. system that was free and open to the top 12 per cent of every high school class is $12,461 a year and every admission is highly competitive and chancy; every drop of water is fought over by landowner, urban consumer, and agribusiness and certainly not “free”:  gasoline is not 15 cents a gallon but under-priced at $3-plus; The $10,000 house could not be built for less than $200,000, not counting the land; the $20,000 Eichler houses of Palo Alto couldn’t be had for $2 million; veggies are now bought  one by one and not in large boxes; the smiling Pat Brown is replaced by the  ascetic Jerry Brown and the smiling Meg Whitman is more accurately described as the grimacing Meg–resembling a gambler who has tried to buy the pot and is terribly worried she’s blown $140 million playing Texas hold ‘em with a monk.

Where’d it all go wrong?  Was there a concealed “balloon payment” not mentioned on the “No Down Payment” billboards?  Were the free wood, the free water, the free university, the cheap gas, the almost free house–all an illusion?  Let’s go back to the Smiling Fifties.  At that time each of California’s 58 counties had its own senator.  That meant populous Los Angeles had one senator and remote northern counties with no population each had one too.  This rankled urbanites and progressives alike — the Progressives believed much more progressive policies would result if all the backwoods counties had one senator for all their counties and L.A. and S.F. would have  the majority.  Their moment came when Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in 1962—Baker v. Carr – and in 1964 (Reynolds v. Sims)— that legislators should be apportioned on a “one-person, one-vote” basis that one man one vote required the California Senate to reconstitute itself entirely by population–he complacently sneered that senators didn’t represent acres or trees (now that the trees were gone) but people.  He said the “Federal analogy” (after-all, didn’t the constitution embody precisely this principle in giving Nevada two senators just like California) was irrelevant. I suspect he and the progressives would have liked to abolish the national senate as well, giving  California, Texas, Florida, and New York most of the senate.

Far from having the results expected, the now redundant California Senate of 40, coupled with the 2/3rds requirement to pass the budget–permits a faction of 14 senators (13 +1) to shut down the state once a year and that is precisely what happens.

What about the $10,000 houses?  As the free wood and free water and free land vanished the cost of building additional houses went up and up and every time someone sold a $10,000 house the price doubled and redoubled.  This meant every year property taxes rose and rose until a tax revolt occurred.  Proposition 13, passed in 1978, stopping the endless reassessment of houses for property taxes,  passed by initiative, the nation’s first  “Tea Party” rebellion.  Now the local governments that had already lost all power in the senate also lost any ability to raise money.  From then on the only way to get $$$ for education was to go to Sacramento and beg or dream up another bond issue to place on the ballot.  These bond issues could only pass with a coalition of all public employees –especially police, prison guards, firemen — uniting with school teachers, nurses, etc., and so the never ending upward spiral of public employee salaries and pensions has no discernible limits.

Meanwhile local governments have turned every conceivable “permit” into a revenue source rather than an ordinary public service.  Could a house be built today for less than $70,000 in permits?  This used to be the cost of seven of those $10,000 homes.  And each of these local bureaucratic potentates belongs to a statewide professional association of “building inspectors”, “health inspectors”, school “administrators”, hospital administrators, police union, etc etc and employs full time lobbyists in the paralyzed state capital endlessly extending their authority and embellishing their bailiwicks.  And above all, raising their salaries and retirement benefits.  As Max Weber pointed out a century ago, it is not the triumph of the working class that is inevitable but the triumph of the official—a triumph he predicted  would produce an ossification beyond that of ancient Egypt.

The trees and acres that Chief Justice Warren sneered at have long ago shown they didn’t need senators to express their power.  Just six months after Reynolds v Sims in December of 1964 the “great flood” on the Eel River struck. The hills, stripped of their trees,  sluiced down their winter rains and swept away the railroad that once ran down our coast and all the habitat of the salmon and steelhead.  Millions of feet of redwood trees and lumber and thousands of acres vanished into the Pacific.

Among the many unpaid bills of the Golden State the rehabilitation of the environment is proving not only costly but probably impossible.

Consider Meg Whitman, in whom all the contradictions of the situation are perfectly embodied.  First the poster child of non voting.  She was too busy making money to vote and wasn’t it easier all along to just send a check?  To “whatever” candidate?   Does she speak for the “non voter”?  The seven million eligible voters who aren’t registered?  The largely Latin, Asian, young, poor non-voters?  Actually Meg’s demographic–wealthy, educated, home-owning white–is by far the most likely to vote.    Isn’t her willingness to spend $140 million of her own dollars sufficient evidence of how much she “cares”?

She needs an issue –so how about “education”—after all, she was marketing director for Hasbro toys and didn’t they own “Playskool” and “Mr Potato Head”?  And didn’t she import “Teletubbies”?  Do these sound like plans to improve our educational system’s abominable present record? Sure she hired an illegal woman as housekeeper but didn’t she fire her when she decided to run for governor?  And it’s Jerry Brown’s fault if the woman gets deported because Meg was sure going to keep her mouth shut.  The employers she promised to crack down on were Other Employers and their employees deserve to be deported.

Do most people know that localities once permitted all residents to vote locally whether citizens or not?  That 42 per cent of Californians speak a language other than English in their homes?  These and many current facts and realities can be found in Lustig’s essential Remaking California.   “The German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once imagined a situation in which the people had “forfeited the confidence of the government” and asked “Would it not be easier/ in that case for the government/ to dissolve the people/ and elect another?”  California’s governing elites have come up in effect with the same idea and have been trying to accomplish the feat for years.

Instead of being picked by the voters, they reach into the electorate and, aided by polling, focus groups, and targeted ads, pick the voters who support their positions”.

When Jerry Brown during his first tenure as governor announced the age of endless expansion of everything was over,  that small was beautiful and less was the new “more” he was ridiculed as Governor Moonbeam and hopelessly out of touch with California’s sacred right of endless excess.  We deserve everything–even bigger muscles–just look at Barry Bonds and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Gray Davis ran as far from Jerry Brown as he could get “Gray Davis  –Always for the death penalty” was his slogan.  Only to be recalled and replaced by Schwarzenegger who ran into precisely the same deadlocked and stalemated Sacramento and watched his popularity sink to zero despite the smile and the muscles.

Davis was elected by 35 per cent of eligible voters—the same percentage as the recall and replacement with Schwarzenegger.

Did we learn anything from the Brown Whitman “debates”?  Was there a single moment of “debate” that anyone detected.?

During the last debate Meg Whitman showed how “populist” she was by bragging she’d campaigned “out there” three or four times a week and had spoken to a truck driver.   Presumably this was more often than Jerry Brown.  Jerry did nothing for months –relying on name recognition and old standby contributors–teachers and public employee unions.  Meg relied on the vast pile of money she’d siphoned off her E-bay fencing operation and fat cat peers who expect to benefit with tax breaks. The moment the debate ended TV viewers were assaulted by strident ads making precisely these points–Meg portrayed with piles of cash and laid off employees, Jerry the professional politician beholden to public worker unions.  Not the slightest indication of any “real” support for either:  no student groups, no community organizations, no grass roots whatsoever.  How different this election would have been if Jerry Brown had built his campaign around a voter registration drive.

“Remaking California” wants to ask “cui bono”—who benefits from the present stalemate? One way to answer this question is to ask who spent most of the $1 billion dollars lobbied into Sacramento in the past decade?  50 per centof this money came from teachers and public employee unions, pharmaceutical industries, and Indian casinos–and these are all booming businesses. For Jeff Lustig , the answer is corporate interests, the wealthy, the exploiters of the public realm.  At book meetings discussing Lustig’s collection people want to add “public employees” and their unions –an answer that Jeff is reluctant to hear.  (He says he objected to panelists blaming public employee unions alone, exclusively, as the beneficiaries of the deadlock; as if public employee unions were the authors of this long-running disaster, without any thought to the benefits reaped by, say, oil interests contesting a royalty tax, development interests, commercial property (contesting market-based valuations for property tax evaluations) etc.

No one wants to discuss “the constitution” more than libertarians and tea baggers.  And since they would be adamantly present at any constitutional convention we know this debate is essential.  For the first time –progressives, greens, activists of all stripes, would be forced to talk to the frustrated tea baggers who feel so scorned and the libertarians who feel so right.

And yes the corporate interests and their bevies of think tankers and academic front men would be there too.  Perhaps the biggest benefit from the effort?  Constitutions are more than exercises in institutional  arrangements or sets of carefully crafted legal definitions.  They are more organic–like the bodily constitution which is not a collection of New Years Resolutions.  A real convention? One that included Latin American values and priorities?  Asian concerns and values?  One that mobilized the vast non-participants?  An inspiring vision!  Read the book!  Participate!  Resurrect forgotten maxims—“All Power to the People” and “Move your ass and your brain will follow”.

Joe and Karen Paff roast their Goldrush Coffee in Petrolia. Joe formerly taught political science at UC Berkley and Stanford. He can be reached at