What Can the Golden State Hope for Now?

This is not an endorsement. I need to issue the disclaimer at the outset because we’re not allowed to endorse candidates.  

But I like Michael Shellenberger. I voted for him in California’s gubernatorial primary, which is officially Tuesday, though voting by mail has been underway for a month. 

My “endorsement,” even if it meant anything, wouldn’t matter much anyway. He won’t win. Incumbent Governor Gavin Newsom is practically a mortal lock for reelection in November. Shellenberger probably won’t even take second place in our idiotic “jungle primary, wherein the top two vote-getters go on to compete in the general election. When Shellenberger first ran for governor in 2018 on a pro-nuclear energy platform, he drew only 1 percent of the vote. A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll last week found just 5 percent of likely voters say they support him this time around. 

So, what is this longshot candidate’s appeal? 

In an appearance Friday on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Shellenberger described himself as “a liberal in my compassion for the vulnerable . . . a libertarian in my passion for freedom, and . . . a conservative in that I believe you need civilization to protect both of them.” 

“I think that’s great,” Maher replied. “I think it’s too complicated for the electorate, but I think that’s great. I want to see that on a hat!” 

“A little bit longer than MAGA,” Shellenberger admitted.

Perhaps Shellenberger isn’t quite as conservative as most American Greatness readers would like, though 10 percent of California Republicans surveyed said they plan to vote for him, and they tend to be more conservative than not. 

He isn’t much of a populist and he has practically no support among Democrats. He’s a confessed recovering socialist—a former George Soros operative, in fact—who has been “mugged by reality.” And he’s running as an independent, though that requires some qualification. About a quarter of Golden State voters now identify as independent or “no party preference.” (I’m one of them.) In practice, however, that means they mostly still lean toward the Democratic Party in this deep blue state. (I do not.)  

Shellenberger is campaigning on what he calls a “pro-civilization platform” but essentially it comes down to one issue: homelessness. He published a very fine book about it last year called San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, which documents how “compassionate” policies undermine law and order, erode social cohesion, and destroy quality of life. 

“What California does with its . . . unsheltered residents,” Shellenberger writes, “most suffering mental illness or drug addiction while living in violent, dangerous, and degrading encampments, is mistreatment of the foulest sort and in many instances far worse than the mistreatment of mentally ill people in the first three quarters of the twentieth century.” 

If that’s an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one.  

More Money, More Problems

California has the largest homeless population in America, thanks in no small part to its policies of permissiveness. 

As of January 2020 (due to COVID-19, that’s the last time a homeless census was published), authorities identified more than 160,000 homeless throughout the state. That’s up more than 30 percent since 2010, even as the homeless population has declined steadily across the rest of the country over the same period. 

Yet California spends gobs and gobs of money to “solve” a problem that never gets better. 

San Francisco, with a seemingly intractable homeless population of around 8,000 people, spent $1.1 billion last year alone to alleviate the crisis. With federal COVID aid, that’s a five-fold increase since 2016. 

Meantime, Los Angeles earmarked $1 billion of its $11 billion budget for homeless programs last year, mainly for housing. In April, the city settled part of a lawsuit with a group called the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, agreeing to spend up to an additional $3 billion over the next five years to provide 14,000 to 16,000 beds. 

Statewide, the legislature last year approved $12 billion for homeless housing and treatment beds. The governor requested $14 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Odd. It’s almost as if the more you subsidize something, the more of it you get. 

Last month, Newsom’s office boasted of reaching a milestone of adding 10,000 new homeless housing units. Typically, each unit is outrageously expensive, generally costing between $500,000 and $750,000—and sometimes north of $1 million the closer you get to the coast. These are basically studio apartments. Nothing spectacular. 

By comparison, according to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to build a new single-family home in California is around $387,500. 

In a sprawling metropolitan region like Los Angeles County, with an estimated homeless population of 66,000 people, housing all of them at exorbitant government prices would rapidly eclipse virtually all other essential government services, including the ones we like.

“At $500,000 per unit,” Edward Ring notes, “it would cost $33 billion to house every homeless person in Los Angeles County, assuming no more arrived. That doesn’t include the swollen bureaucracy and ongoing costs to manage homeless housing, nor any spending to actually treat them and get them on a path to independence.” L.A. County’s total budget for 2022, incidentally, is $38.5 billion. 

Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times

“Compassion” Doesn’t Come Cheap

Many progressive activists—the people behind the policies we detest—have a view of the world that holds drug addicts and criminals essentially blameless for their transgressions. They are victims of a cruel capitalist society. They have no agency. Society is to blame. Perhaps if we’re nice—and if we spend enough money—they’ll go away.  

They won’t go away.

After decades of toiling in left-wing activism, Shellenberger has come around to the opinion that simply throwing money at a problem does not always work.

“The question used to be carrots versus sticks,” Shellenberger writes in San Fransicko. “Do you reward people for not committing crimes, or do you punish them when they do?” Now, he says, “the governing majority in some of America’s cities”—especially in places like L.A. and San Francisco—“seems to believe that the only real public policy problem is how to pay for letting people do whatever they want, from turning public parks into open-air drug encampments to using sidewalks as toilets . . .” 

Again, he isn’t exaggerating. 

When I was last in San Francisco in 2019, I witnessed two broad-daylight drug deals within a half-hour span, including one across the street from the tourist-thronged Union Square in full view of a cop. I saw hundreds of people camped around Hastings Law School and near City Hall. Several were shooting up. Others were slumped over and passed out. One raggedy man was screaming at random passing cars. Since COVID, conditions have only worsened. (Though in 2020, the city agreed to clear out the sidewalks in front of Hastings after the school and other businesses sued.)

San Francisco and Los Angeles may be focal points of the crisis, but homeless people are practically everywhere in California. They hunker down in washes, ravines, and orchards. On the side of highways and under freeway overpasses. Tents and RVs line suburban streets and rivers. Venice Beach, famous for its boardwalk, has become notorious for its aggressive homeless population—some 2,000 people at last count. Law-abiding, taxpaying residents have become prisoners in their own homes

Even the small mountain town where I live has two or three homeless people wandering around at any given time. They’re generally harmless, but all of them appear to suffer from some sort of untreated serious mental illness. One middle-aged woman camped out in the post office lobby last year for two weeks before the county sheriff relocated her to parts unknown. Is she getting the care she needs? Who knows? It’s highly doubtful.

The point is, that woman deserves better than she’s probably getting. So do a lot of people.

In his book and in his campaign appearances, Shellenberger makes the obvious point that progressives and Democrats have largely controlled the major cities and the state as the homelessness crisis has deepened and conditions have deteriorated. Republicans have been mostly powerless to stop them. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

He disagrees with the standard line that homelessness is a result of too little housing and excessively high rents. That might be true in a few instances, but more often than not, it’s a mental illness problem and a drug problem. 

Shellenberger’s watchword is “tough love.” He wants to replace passivity and permissiveness with action. He would make encampments illegal and require addicts to get into treatment—whether they like it or not. Instead of the expensive and inefficient “housing first” model preferred by homeless advocates, he would pursue a policy of “shelter first.” 

“Free housing is not something addicts are entitled to,” he says. “Subsidized housing should be earned when drug addicts go through recovery and get a job.”

He told Bill Maher on Friday that he’s inspired by how Europe addresses drug abuse and mental health. “You go to Amsterdam, you go to other parts of Europe, they don’t have open-air drug scenes. They don’t have homeless encampments.” The Dutch four decades ago had taken the same approach as California does today—clean needles, no law enforcement—with disastrous results. People were dying. 

In the ’90s, the Amsterdam city government changed course. They began to arrest people and gave them an ultimatum: treatment or jail. (California actually had a similar system—the drug courts—that was effectively emasculated in 2014 after voters approved Proposition 47, a ballot measure that made several felonies, including drug possession, into misdemeanors. Predictably, crime—especially property crime—spiked.)    

Shellenberger also points to the difference between New York and Los Angeles. New York City is no Shangri-La, especially after eight years of Bill de Blasio undoing the key reforms of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, and a justice system committed to releasing repeat offenders. Nevertheless, Shellenberger points out, “between 2020 and 2021, three times more homeless died in Los Angeles than in New York City, even though there’s 14,000 fewer homeless people.” 

Why? Shellenberger contends that New York shelters 96 percent of its homeless versus less than one-third in Los Angeles. Homeless people simply aren’t safe outdoors. 

We Need to Be Coercive Again

The major reform Shellenberger seeks is a total overhaul of the state’s mental health “system,” which is almost the wrong word. The state’s 58 counties each have their own mental health programs, all of which are underfunded and overwhelmed. 

Shellenberger’s idea would be to centralize the state’s disparate mental health systems under the umbrella of a new agency he calls “Cal-Psyche.” 

“A statewide system will allow us to treat addicts and the mentally ill in parts of California where the cost of living is lower,” he says. “This statewide system will be more cost-effective than the individual county systems, which are failing to do the job.” He also wants the federal government to reimburse the state for the cost of treating people lured to California for its pleasant climate and generous benefits.

Would it work? That’s hard to say. He would need to undo or work around decades’ worth of law and policy, to say nothing of several major court decisions. The ACLU and other homeless and mental health advocates would sue good and hard. Also, Shellenberger is vague on the costs of his proposals. In San Fransicko, he suggests Cal-Psyche could be funded through “California’s failed Mental Health Services Act . . ., Medicaid, and, over time, city and county funding currently being allocated to unaccountable nonprofit service providers.” In any event, the work involved to achieve what he wants would likely exceed a governor’s constitutionally limited maximum term of eight years in office. 

But it’s noteworthy that Newsom has changed his tune somewhat as Shellenberger has hammered the issue. The governor in March proposed a bill that, if approved, would compel an estimated 7,000 to 12,000 people to receive court-ordered psychiatric treatment in lieu of jail. 

“There’s no compassion stepping over people in the streets and sidewalks,” Newsom told reporters at a press conference at a mental health treatment facility in San Jose. “We could hold hands, have a candlelight vigil, talk about the way the world should be, or we could take some damn responsibility to implement our ideals and that’s what we’re doing differently here.”

Is Newsom’s idea any good? That’s also hard to say, though the mental illness lobby (yes, there is such a thing) immediately denounced it. It’s certainly a departure from the status quo. Which sounds awfully . . . Shellenbergeresque.

George Rose/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Republicans Have a Big Problem

A Republican is running for governor of California. His name is Brian Dahle. He’s a state senator who represents a vast swath of the rural northern part of the state and is, by all accounts, a decent fellow. 

It’s just hard to understand why exactly he’s running.

In an interview with CalMatters, Dahle criticized Newsom for governing by executive order and circumventing the legislature. Fair enough. He promises a new era of bipartisanship and, to borrow one of former Governor Jerry Brown’s favorite terms, comity.

“I will have every single legislator in my office when I’m governor, and we will talk about their district and we will talk about the challenges and we will find places we can work together,” Dahle said. 

As much as everyone likes to complain about political polarization, appeals to bipartisanship rarely win votes. 

Dahle also wants to fund local police, build more charging stations for electric vehicles, crack down on frivolous environmental lawsuits, and improve the state’s aging water infrastructure in the face of another drought. (Goodness! If only there were some way to do that!) Mostly standard Republican stuff, in other words, if a bit boring. A safe Republican platform for a very liberal state. 

Newsom is running ads against him anyway, focusing on—what else?—abortion. Because of course, that’s the key issue in California right now. (It isn’t.)

A resolutely “conservative” campaign would do no better. An outspoken right-winger simply has no chance in a statewide race today. Though the party still does well in rural and inland parts of the state, no Republican, conservative or otherwise, has won a statewide election since 2006. Arnold Schwarzenegger ran as a moderate Republican but governed essentially as a progressive. And don’t forget, Californians alone were responsible for the Democrats’ popular vote margins of victory in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Conservatives were disappointed that last year’s recall of Newsom failed because Newsom, a hack politician constitutionally incapable of speaking in anything other than clichés, so richly deserved to fall. 

But his main challenger, radio talk show host Larry Elder, was never going to win. I remember reading weird post hoc apologies for Elder’s doomed campaign. He didn’t “lose”! He got more than 3.5 million votes! The most of any of the eight-jillion other freaks on the ballot. That’s amazing! 

Except it wasn’t amazing at all. Elder got crushed on the one question that mattered: “Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled from the office of governor?” Nearly 62 percent of voters—7.9 million people—said no. 

Sorry, Larry Elder wasn’t the guy. He was never going to be the guy. It was at once laughable and appalling that a black lesbian Los Angeles Times columnist would describe Elder as “the black face of white supremacy.” But that isn’t what sunk him.

The recall really was a referendum on COVID. And we learned, to our great sadness, that most Californians are not Texans or Floridians. Newsom’s COVID hypocrisy was awful and despotic, yes. But most of the voters rejected Elder’s laissez-faire approach. It’s as simple and depressing as that. 

For Republicans—or whatever faction that isn’t the Democrats—to prevail in the Golden State again, they will need to build credible grassroots organizations and rebuild trust with voters. They will need to learn what Democrats internalized in the 1990s: that to win statewide, they will need a deep bench of experienced candidates with successful track records. That means learning the intricacies of local government. That means running for the water board and the school board and maybe eventually the city council. 

Mainly, it means meeting people where people are. Deeds matter vastly more than words. It’s a generational project.

Just as most Democrats scoff at Shellenberger’s heterodox politics, his résumé also will be anathema to most of California’s remaining Republicans. But as Shellenberger writes in San Fransicko, “We live here.” As long as we do, we have a responsibility to make the place better. If we can.

Maybe we can’t. California works well for certain people who can afford to ignore the indigent meth addicts sprawled on the sidewalks miles from where they live. They’re the same people who think electricity comes from the switch on their wall and water will always flow freely from their taps. Maybe the place needs to collapse before it can really thrive again. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have already voted with their feet, abandoning a former paradise for the godforsaken desert. And one day, I might be one of them. For now, though, my vote for the recovering socialist is a vote for a return to order and in support of policies that are more likely to succeed. “Pro-civilization” is a minority position, I know—but one that needs to be heard loud and clear.

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About Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He is a former weekly syndicated columnist with Tribune Media, and a veteran of several publications, including City Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and the Claremont Review of Books. He lives in California. Subscribe to his Substack newsletter, “Nice Things and Why You Can’t Have Them.”

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