For conservatives across America, California has become the cautionary tale for the rest of the country. Anyone who actually lives in the Golden State, and enjoys the best weather and the most beautiful, diverse scenery on earth, knows there are two sides to the story of this captivating place. Nevertheless, the story keeps getting worse.
For every essential—homes, rent, tuition, gasoline, electricity, and water—Californians pay the among the highest prices in the continental United States. Californians endure the most hostile business climate in America, and pay the highest taxes. The public schools are failing, crime is soaring, electricity is unreliable, water is rationed, and the mismanaged forests are burning like hell. Yet all of this can be fixed.
The solutions aren’t mysteries. Deregulate housing permits. End the disastrous “housing-first” policies and instead give the homeless safe housing in inexpensive barracks where sobriety is a condition of entry. Repeal Proposition 47, which downgraded property and drug crimes. Build reservoirs, desalination, and wastewater recycling plants. Build nuclear power plants and develop California’s abundant natural gas reserves. Recognize that the common road is the future of transportation, not the past, and widen California’s freeways and highways. Let the timber companies harvest more lumber in exchange for maintaining the fire roads and power line corridors. Implement school choice and make public schools compete with private schools on the basis of excellence. Done.
It isn’t quite that simple, of course, and in the articles to follow in this series, each of these issues will be looked at in greater depth. But while fixing California requires both political will and smarter investment of public funds (OK, much smarter investment of public funds), none of this can happen without a change in attitude. How we think about problems needs to change.
This isn’t just about ideology. Going into that labyrinth can become a fool’s errand. The politicians who governed California during what arguably were its greatest years were Democrats. Old-timers refer to them as the Pat Brown Democrats, leaders whose approach to politics was pragmatic and focused on serving the people. During that heyday, homes were affordable and freeways weren’t crowded. Public schools were good, and the University of California campuses offered the best public higher education in the country. The California Water Project, taking barely more than a decade to construct, remains the most impressive feat of interbasin water transfers in the world.
Some of the constraints that have led to today’s neglect and failures are legitimate. In the 1960s the air quality in California’s urban centers, from the Santa Clara Valley to the Los Angeles Basin, was far worse than it is today, despite the fact that four times as many people are living in those basins now. Back in the 1960s, the San Francisco Bay was choking on pollution, and was on track to be filled in to make room for more suburbs.
Nobody wants to turn back the clock on an environmental cleanup that has been heroic. But today, environmentalism has gone too far. Regulations and litigation have stopped development in its tracks. More than anything else, environmentalism run amok is the reason Californians live with scarcity and high prices.
The extent and complexity of environmental regulations have allowed special interests to put their agenda ahead of the interests of ordinary Californians. Public employee unions, which didn’t even exist when Pat Brown was California’s governor 60 years ago, now exercise almost complete control over California’s state and local government agencies. Freezing infrastructure spending allows government funds to be redirected to pay and benefits for state bureaucrats, instead of to freeways and water projects. And tying development up in knots with more regulations always means more government hiring.
Also benefiting from extreme environmentalism are California’s high-tech billionaires, who now have a lucrative mandate to create an “internet of things” to monitor the consumption of resources. Public utilities benefit because their profits (which are regulated by law at a fixed percentage of revenues) soar when the per-unit costs for electricity and water go way up to pay for renewables and to cope with artificially imposed scarcity. This imposed scarcity keeps housing unaffordable, locking out homebuyers but yielding high returns to real estate speculators.
While this radical environmentalism that would have John Muir turning in his grave provides moral cover to California’s economic tyrants, a similar perversion of ideals has happened with respect to race. California is one of the last places one may find racism in the 21st century. Through the second half of the 20th century—certainly compared to every other state in America—California was not known for racism. But suddenly racism is an existential crisis. As if California’s beleaguered citizens didn’t have enough to contend with, now their failing public schools are moving even further from teaching the basics, turning instead to teach every subject through the lens of critical race theory.
We’ve heard all this before. Much of what Californians face are challenges confronting everyone in America. But California, the biggest state, and the bluest state, is a powerful trendsetter. California is broken, hijacked by opportunists wielding overwhelming financial and political power. How does this change?
The solutions to be discussed can’t succeed merely on their merits, despite a compelling case for each of them. Politicians and influencers who want to fix California have to change how people think. They have to reiterate themes that change the filters through which people form opinions. California’s voters are the victims of 50 years of increasingly effective brainwashing by the media, the public school system, Democratic politicians, and more recently (and more virulently than ever), by social media. They have to be deprogrammed.
The themes that will inspire Californians and alter their perception of issues might begin with the concept of abundance instead of scarcity. Californians have been convinced that rationing of water and energy and land is necessary to save the planet. But it isn’t. As will be seen, resources and technologies already exist to create abundance. There are ways to unlock open land for development, and there are ways to increase the supply and lower the price for water and electricity, without harming the environment. Urban civilization has an inevitable footprint on ecosystems. But the solutions being proposed—thousands of square miles of wind turbines and solar farms, tens of thousands of square miles of biofuel plantations—are far worse than the conventional alternatives.
Embracing abundance and rejecting the necessity for rationing, while making a realistic assessment of the tradeoffs between various environmental solutions, are themes that cannot be emphasized enough. But other themes offer additional vital support to a new way of thinking. The Pat Brown Democrats back in the 1960s, and even a few of them today, put practical solutions ahead of ideology. Ideological extremes are hindrances to practical solutions. Republicans and Libertarians tend to reflexively offer principled opposition to government spending on infrastructure. When they do this, they’re playing into the hands of the special interests, just described, that profit when infrastructure is neglected. It isn’t government spending that’s bad—that judgment depends on what the spending is for.
The theme that can attract coalition partners and create majorities, building on the themes of abundance and pragmatism, is optimism. Even the liberal media ridiculed Jerry Brown as “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested in the late 1970s that California develop its own space program. But if Pat Brown’s son didn’t get much right—he is the quintessential Malthusian—when it comes to a space program in California, he was a prophet. Elon Musk has proven that. And Musk, whom libertarians tend to deride as someone who collected subsidies while building SpaceX, has—in one decade—brought down the cost of lifting a payload into earth orbit by an order of magnitude. Musk is a quintessential Californian, and SpaceX is a perfect example of government funds that were invested with a tremendous return.
Optimism is an irresistible theme. With optimism, dreaming is possible, reconciliation is possible, partnerships and coalitions are possible. With optimism, abundance is not a fantasy, it is a choice, and rationing is easily overcome. With optimism, grand bargains are possible, and big things get done. With optimism, a sense of urgency isn’t oppressive, it’s inspiring. Optimism is anathema to environmentalist extremists and “anti-racist” fanatics, it is the antidote to the politics of fear and resentment. Optimism, which California’s ruling class has abandoned, is nonetheless in California’s cultural DNA, written across the centuries.
In the installments to come, focusing on water, energy, transportation, housing, law and order, the homeless, forest management, and education, these themes of promise and potential still to be achieved will be woven into the narrative—because without them, nothing is possible, and with them, anything is possible.