California Dreaming, Still

Since the Gold Rush days California has tantalized Americans as that El Dorado on the horizon. Millions went to look for themselves. Tens of millions more have fashioned their dreams of its gossamer and tinsel. In more tangible ways, the Golden State has been a trend setter and pioneer. Hollywood is not in Iowa, Silicon Valley is not in Mississippi and the Kardashians of diverse genders do not strut their stuff in Oklahoma.

For 21st century California it has not been all roses and wafer chips.  The state was hit hard by the Great Financial Collapse as one of the epi-centers of the housing bust. Cities went bankrupt and Sacramento at one point was on the brink of distributing script as the red ink flowed. There were drastic cuts in social services. Teachers were laid off in droves (82,000), parks closed. Jerry Brown took the gamble of a referendum in support of a sharp tax hike and won. Now, seven years after the earth parted, the books are back in the black as the national economy grinds its gears up the steep slope of recovery. That does not mean that the status quo ante has been restored. Much has changed – in ways that are instructive.

A few anecdotes mark out the post crisis terrain. Big projects are in vogue. The biggest of all is a high speed rail line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco via the agricultural Central Valley. It is Brown’s legacy project. He somehow convinced Californians to approve billions in bonds to set the enterprise in motion. The Obama administration primed it with a couple of billion more when Florida and a few other states decided that mass transit – high speed or low – was alien to their life style. Total costs may in the end hit the $100 billion mark (official estimate is $65 billion) according to disinterested parties with experience of these mega projects. This makes it the priciest public works project in the country’s history – by far, if we exclude the Pentagon weapons programs. Where the rest of the money will come from is highly uncertain. Anyway, the first shovel of dirt has been lifted to begin construction on a 29 mile stretch from Modesto to Madera.  Both towns offer high grade organic produce – so little commuter traffic can be expected. It is predicted that traffic will boom once the terminal links are made sometime in the next decade. That date is problematic since major slowdowns will be encountered once the line reaches the two metropolises. Anyway, by 2020 you should be able to make the run from Bakersfield to Gilroy in one and a half hours – presuming that you have something to do in either town or in Modesto or Madera along the way. Other legacy monuments are more conventional.

A state-of-play football stadium in Los Angeles modelled on the 49ers new home in Santa Clara 50 miles from San Francisco in the orbit of San Jose. The Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers will be lured to fill the seats – the latest example of major league sports’ game of musical chairs. The St. Louis Rams also have expressed interest in returning to the “Melanoma Belt” – thereby paving the way for the NFL’s all-time first menage-a-trois. The Santa Clara colosseum is conveniently accessible to Silicon Valley and, therefore, might entice more techie tyros to stake their tents close to their offices rather than strangle San Francisco with their presence. That city’s Mayor, Edwin Lee, has successfully promoted an arena for the Golden State Warriors near the baseball park. His original idea was to build it on piers over the bay as a symbol of his farsighted reign. That proved inadvisable as water levels are rising and that would necessitate restricting underground parking. Another strike against it was the unwillingness of fans, proud of their newly crowned NBA champions, to find themselves rooting for the Golden State Amphibians.

Jails and prisons continue to be a staple budget item and devourer of large sums. California spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. Although the state’s prison population is beginning to decline from its dim-witted three-strikes-and-you’re-out peak, conditions still draw the attention of the courts while the cost of upkeep draws the attention of parents worried about deteriorating schools. Still, all budgetary politics is inertial. Understandably then the city council is about to act on a proposal to construct a new jail for a cool $600 million. A bargain when one considers that this is but 1 % of the optimistic cost projections for the high speed rail system. Belatedly, some have questioned the need nonetheless since the present facility has lots of empty beds and under-utilized basketball courts. Promoters have found it necessary to shift ground, now arguing that the old jail is not earthquake proof. (As is the case for a few million structures in California).  Not to act might leave the county and city vulnerable to post-earthquake law suits charging the authorities with failure to exercise due diligence, criminal negligence, or even inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” on the inmates by forcing them to live in dread of a pending catastrophe – or perhaps all three. So this is something to bear in mind if you or your loved ones are contemplating any mischief that could lead to incarceration. You might wish to try Madera County, where the jailhouse meets earthquake standards, instead; reportedly, the transportation connections are excellent.

These macro projects around the state are chewing up a large slice of the monies that the economic rebound is sluicing into the state till.  Another slice has been earmarked to stock a “Rainy Day” fund that could shelter the state’s finances were Wall Street excesses to generate a another meltdown. Prudence is now the watchword. The inescapable arithmetic points to the conclusion that there is not enough cash available to restore all the 2009 – 2012 cutbacks. Social services, especially those that target the poor and destitute, have regained most of their lost ground. That is a decent thing. California is not Texas, after all.

Other areas are faring less well.  Education is the big loser. The combination of a sharp drop in state aid and local school districts’ inability to cover the losses generated by the housing crisis and collapse of real estate prices cuts education budgets to the bone. Tens of thousands of teachers and staff were let go. The damage has been considerable. It will continue as rehirings and other expenditure increases have yet to bring spending back to earlier levels. Indeed, now a teacher shortage problem has arisen as many of those sacked have moved into other vocations while enrollments and graduate rates in education degree programs have declined substantially.

That trend will not reverse itself since more is involved than shifting career preferences. Teachers as a professional group have been subject to a national campaign of vilification that disparages them as lazy, disengaged and responsible for the ills that allegedly beset American education. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have led the lynch mob, using demeaning language that is felt to be insulting. Moreover, teachers everywhere are being regimented as measures of evaluation and control are imposed that know no precedent or equivalence in other liberal professions. Yet, Californians and officials everywhere claim to be stunned that qualified people are fleeing or avoiding school teaching.

California public education is in troubled straits. Overall, students perform poorly on standardized tests – ranking 37th compared to other states. Of course, this has something to do with the relatively large population of ill prepared immigrants and a great number of students for whom English is not their native language.  It will require more spending to meet that challenge.

Higher education has fared no better.   Indeed, it is in worse shape. The University system’s nine campuses saw their budget cut by $1 billion at the height of the crisis. Much of that now looks to be permanent. The cardinal factor in the equation is that Jerry Brown is no fan of the University. He views it with aversion. There is a long and complicated history to this. In his college days, Berkeley was the magnet for many of his generation. Brown instead chose to enroll first in the University of Santa Clara and then transferred to a Catholic seminary, Sacred Heart Novitiate, which he left after three years. That was followed by a short stint at Berkeley.

He didn’t fit into any of the Berkeley scenes; he was intimidated by Berkeley.  Brown, an outsider, kept his distance from the tumultuous events of the 1960s – cultural and political. During his first terms as Governor, he was cool toward the University but did not seek to diminish it.

That now is changed. Brown’s avowed intention is to downsize the flagship Berkeley campus and the other eight campuses. He is strongly resisting any major increase in funding. His plan includes a vast expansion of MOOC courses, introducing a three year degree option, and emphasizing the placing of greater weight on inculcating employable skills. The underlying philosophy is little different from that which guides the thinking of Governors Walker in Wisconsin, Abbott in Texas or several others. That has brought him into conflict with the Board of Regents headed by Janet Napolitano, also a Santa Clara alum.  The Regents themselves have evinced only tepid commitment to the established model of the state’s higher education system. As elsewhere, they take pride in bringing “managerial efficiency” to the Ivory Tower. Still, Brown’s scheme was too radical and fraught with political consequences. They sought to fill the budget gap by raising tuition. Brown refused. Eventually an awkward compromise was reached: no tuition increase, some increase in state appropriations, the move toward MOOCs and similar ploys at all deliberate speed.  This is the new California model for public higher education.

Perhaps to strengthen its fading claim to leadership of the avant-garde, University authorities have amended the standard student application form to include six gender identities. Protests at the exclusion of a seventh ‘til now undiscovered human sexual orientation may erupt when the Fall term opens. In truth, officials everywhere love this LGBTQ agitation – it diverts student attention from more contentious grievances like rape on campus. And a cost-free sympathetic response makes them look virtuous.

The menace that hovers over all of this is the drought. A shortage of water is California’s nemesis. It always has been. Southern California in its entirety gets less than 10” of rain on average per year. That is only enough to sustain a small fraction of the current population in Los Angeles, San Diego, et al. This aridity has been compensated for by the diversion of huge amounts of water from three locations: the Colorado River, Lake Owens and vicinity (recall Jack Nicholson in China Town), and mainly from the Sacramento River basin and San Joaquin River up north. The Sacramento accumulates a large fraction of the snow run-off in the Sierras. It is then transported more than four hundred miles southwards via the giant California State Water Project network.

The Southland needs even more water. So Jerry Brown has led a state effort to divert a bigger fraction of the Sacramento basin water. Opposition in the North comes mainly from those who point out the dire environmental consequences for San Francisco Bay and its estuaries as well as the project’s enormous cost. They will lose – as always. Do the demographic arithmetic and count the votes.

The simple truth is that southern California never should have been encouraged to grow into a giant conurbation. The drought is a reminder of what happens when you fool with Mother Nature. In principle, there are only two long-run answers: one on the demand side, and one on the supply side. The first is to limit what the water hungry population in the south wants. Since any such plan could not be enforced, the only way to achieve it would be to withhold investment in further schemes to funnel water to Los Angelinos. Since there is not enough Perrier in the world to fill the gap, population growth would have to shift elsewhere – like Buffalo and Cleveland.

At the supply end, there is an enormous amount of water available farther north in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon, Washington and maybe British Columbia. The idea has cropped up from time to time but a serious cost study is lacking. It could be as expensive as Jerry Brown’s choo-choo to nowhere. In addition, the citizens up there would have to agree; and it’s not clear what is in it for them. An imaginative inducement package is conceivable, including: life-time passes to Disneyland; free I-rings when Apple miniaturizes their I-watch; coupons for rides on the San Francisco cable cars; enrollment discounts at the University’s Santa Barbara campus; a premium ticket to sees a Giants World Series game in odd-numbered years; and perhaps a couple of all-expense paid day trips on the High Speed Rail line from Modesto to Madera.

The entire drought discussion may now be moot. The New York Times last Sunday boldly pronounced that California is “WINNI NG THE DROUGHT.” (Drought has yet to respond to the claim). Since The Times is our newspaper of record, Californians are free to start praying that the developing El Nino will weaken so that they can enjoy another sun-spangled winter.

California as a whole, like its great university system, is living on capital generated in the past by leaders who had a constructive vision. This generation is letting it run down. Their gaze is fixed on coping strategies while frittering away resources on the grandiose. That leads to an odd symbiosis: Hollywood and Silicon Valley generate much of the state’s money through exploitation of the frivolous and the trendy. The state spends much of that on other expressions of the frivolous and the trendy.

P.S. As true Californians know, now is the season when the Golden State glows – especially the North Coast above San Francisco.  The fog recedes, the chilly temperatures rise, the relatively few tourists recede as well, and the campers are retired to their garages when the kids head back to their underfunded schools.  It’s all yours: sea, redwoods, meadows – and, if you know the right spots, weak cell phone signals.  Not a Silicon Valley prodigy or hedge fund predator in sight.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.