Sunny California Caught by Gathering Storm

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

California’s weather is nearly ideal. The soil is the nation’s richest. There is a 1,000-mile coastline and endowments of fishing, timber, petroleum and water. In less than a century, our ancestors created Hollywood and Silicon Valley, as well as booming agribusiness, tourism and trade. A futuristic freeway system, world-class higher education and forward-looking bipartisan government promised that the 21st century would be even better for the action-state.

Not quite so. Our generation has squandered these natural and inherited riches. If utilities used to be the envy of the country, some are nearly bankrupt—while power outages and sky-high rates depress consumers. In a state of more than 36 million, there is still only one reliable all-weather lateral route from the sea across the mountains. Highways 99 and 101—often just two lanes and with cross-traffic—used to be models of engineering excellence. Now they are crowded and riddled with potholes.

Unlike the East Coast corridor, California has no efficient integrated rail system. Praise for once-modern airports has devolved into horror stories of being lost in the mess of Los Angeles International.

Until recently, the state had not opened a University of California in almost 40 years—and currently spends 10 times more to incarcerate its illegal aliens than on the new underfunded Merced campus. Part-time and sometimes exploited adjunct lecturers dominate its universities, even as tuition still soars beyond the rate of inflation. California’s perfect storm is more complex than stereotyped Democratic wastefulness or Republican stinginess. Sales and income taxes are among the nation’s highest, even as the state is still recovering from near bankruptcy. There are purported manpower shortages throughout a government that has nevertheless grown top-heavy with well-paid state executives. The legislature is paralyzed by regional and tribal factionalism; in the vacuum needed laws are now made instead by ballot proposition—sometimes ignored by the bureaucracy or often overturned by the state courts.

What is the problem? California’s soft utopian dreams outdistanced hard reality. In a metaphorical sense, we were homeowners who haggled over the sheen on our beautiful wood floors, but had no inkling of the rotting foundation out of sight beneath the house.

Sophisticates bickered over the artistic design of a new span of the Bay Bridge but were bored by their underlings’ warnings of how to pay or build it. Upscale environmentalists in water-hungry San Francisco envision tearing down Hetch Hetchy Dam to re-create another Yosemite Valley—without a serious plan of how to replace its life-giving water supply.

Biologists want fewer dams to guarantee that rivers run full of fish as they did in the 19th century, but grow silent when no-nonsense farmers ask how then to irrigate crops and feed ever more people. No one understandably wants unsightly and messy oil-drilling platforms off Santa Barbara, but there are still as many gas-guzzling SUVs in its beautiful neighborhoods as elsewhere.

Open borders in theory sound magnanimous, but few at ground zero are willing to do the old successful calculus of legality, English immersion or integration—not when it is easier to pontificate about multiculturalism and the need for cheap labor.

Tax-breaks and insider influence peddling favor corporations. Yet the real conservatives—small businesses and vanishing farms—are buried beneath soaring workers’ compensation, government regulations, liability insurance and high taxes.

Into this chaotic mess comes the most unlikely savior, an Austrian-born, last action-movie hero who fled a statist Europe to escape what California is becoming. He understands the entitlement malaise—and accepts that the medicine will be seen as worse than the disease.

His role is to take on the teacher and prison unions, trial lawyers, corporate insiders and government bureaucrats, and thus curb entitlements, demand budgetary discipline and revive the California spirit for investment rather than mere consumption.

Yet Gov. Schwarzenegger must stay clear of his base’s hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion that have little to do with the state’s financial decline, but can easily collapse his fragile alliances. He must prove the state can cut useless programs—precisely because billions more dollars are needed desperately for transportation, education and power, sewage and water plants. And his tinsel-town charisma must win over key backroom players who otherwise would not let him into their chambers.

The governor hopes that Californians don’t tire of his monotonous tough love of spending less and accepting pragmatism over utopianism, while he assures them that he doesn’t need any more money, fame or anything else other than meeting the challenge of defeating something far more insidious than any of the Hollywood villains he so easily terminated.

Everything that went so very wrong in the therapeutic culture of California warns the rest of the country — and yet everything that could go right here might as well.


©2005 Victor Davis Hanson
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