The controversial US Supreme Court decision (pdf) that could ultimately force California to release tens of thousands of prison inmates is more than a shockingly broad exercise of judicial power. It is also an official declaration by the highest constitutional authority in the land that California meets the strict test of state failure: it can no longer enforce the law within its frontiers.
Let there be no mistake: when you produce so many criminals that you can’t afford to lock them up, you are a failed state. Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point. Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters. Your schools aren’t educating enough of your kids to make an honest living. Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away. Your management systems must be fouled and confused to the max for you to create something so dysfunctional, so wildly beyond your means, that the Supreme Court of the United States (wisely or foolishly is another question) starts to micromanage your jails.
California used to be the glory of this country, the dream by the sea, the magic state. Now it produces so many criminals it can’t pay to keep them locked up.
This is partly a blue social model thing. California’s public unions are sucking the state dry — like a parasite killing its host. Too many Californians buy the ideology of entitlement best described by that great Louisiana prophet of the blue social model Huey Long: “If you aren’t getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share.”
The federal government’s generation of serial failures in migration policy is also to blame. More exposed to illegal migration than any other state, California has been overwhelmed by both legal and illegal immigrants. Immigrants are a net plus for the United States, but neither the federal nor the state governments have been willing to provide the appropriate policy framework to manage this flow — and to cope with the consequences.
Some of the fault is judicial. California’s prison blues partly reflect micromanagement by a host of addled judges who among them have imposed a conflicting and overlapping set of requirements that increase costs to the point where overall conditions decline. One judge imposes a health mandate; another throws in some food and nutrition requirements; somebody else issues an order for exercise, education, visitation rights or what have you. In the end the system becomes unmanageable and unsustainable and in yet another fatheaded intervention the Supreme Court supports a lower court order for mass prisoner release. Judicial intervention in the prison system needs to be safe, legal and rare: at the moment it seems to be none of the above.
It’s partly about corporate flight. Destructive and shortsighted tax policies have literally driven big corporations out of the state. For the last five years, Southern California has been losing roughly one Fortune 500 corporate headquarters a year, while the state as a whole has lost four such companies in the last twelve months in an accelerating flight to greener pastures in less-dysfunctional states like Texas, Colorado and Virginia.
Meanwhile, California has the one of the worst business climates in the country: in three widely–cited rankings, California came 49th or 50th. High taxes, rigid regulations, bribery, unresponsive bureaucrats: California has it all.
It has one of the most expensive and least effective governments in the country. California has the country’s 6th highest total tax burden and yet also the largest budget deficit ($25.4bn projected for FY2012 — that’s about $687 per capita). North Dakota, by contrast, balances its budget every year, educates its kids better, is creating new jobs and taxes its residents at less than half California’s level.
California’s school expenditures bear no relationship to results. In 2008, although California spent more on public schools than any other state in the country and more per pupil than many, its students ranked 49th (out of 51, including DC) in reading achievement, 48th in math. States like South Dakota spent much less per pupil and got much better results.
The former paradise of the automobile can’t even get car policy right; it has the country’s second highest gas prices and some of the worst traffic in the United States.
Californians weren’t always this incompetent. In fact, California invented the modern American dream. The brilliant banker A.P. Giannini pioneered the mass marketed thirty year mortgage. Under his leadership the Bank of America perfected the growth engine that drove this whole country for sixty years. The bank lent money through the municipal bond market to build the infrastructure for new subdivisions. It lent money to real estate developers to build housing developments and lent money to consumers for mortgages and to buy cars. The tax revenues from the higher land values in the subdivisions payed for the bonds and the schools. The jobs provided by a favorable combination of a good business climate and government support (highway infrastructure, defense spending and industrial investment originally related to World War Two and continuing through the Cold War) put money in consumers’ pockets to pay for it all. Hollywood (also originally banked by Giannini) sprinkled it with magic dust, and the world gazed in awe.
I’ll never forget my own first trip to Golden California. After I graduated from Pundit High, my parents gave me the use of our beat up old Volkswagon Beetle and a gas credit card for a month. Following a series of misadventures that I hope will NOT see the light of day after all these years, we crossed the California state line and like generations of easterners before us we were awed and stunned by the beauty and wealth of the natural environment and the progressive utopia rising on every side. Gas was 18 cents a gallon; artichokes cost a nickel. The freeways sparkled in the sun; the roses that grew in the median strips were lush and well kept. The LA Times was one of the world’s great papers; the California university system was the wonder of the world.
That glory has gone. Californians pay more to and get less from their state government than anybody else in the civilized world. The progressive meltdown of every important and valuable institution in the state is paralleled by the collapse of California’s place in our national cultural life. San Francisco once looked to be the literary capital of the Pacific; today it is a more provincial, less interesting city than it was fifty years ago. Lost Angeles is a parody of itself, a city to escape rather than a goal to be reached.
California politics and analysis is mostly a blame game these days. When you go to failing states outside the US, you are often treated to long and impassioned arguments among intellectuals about where it all went wrong. Arabs, Argentines, Russians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Mexicans and, lately, the Japanese sit up into the wee hours about when precisely the key bad decisions were taken — when the point of no return was passed.
That is what discussions about California increasingly sound like. My guess is that we’ll have more of these going forward. Increasingly, I lean to the idea that California as we know it has been decisively and finally lost. Embers are still burning in the ashes (Hollywood, Silicon Valley), but the flame of the west gutters low.
To rekindle what used to be the most glorious star in Columbia’s crown, we are going to have to get away from what has become the California state obsession in recent years: reform. California reform commissions and committees are as common as parking lots these days; the results of past reforms in the form of propositions and constitutional amendments are part of the problem. Most new reforms will meet the same fate: the California state government long ago jumped the shark.
The only hope I can see is to break it up. California’s core problem is that it has outgrown the constitutional model we have for it. California is too populous, too diverse, too complicated to flourish as a single state. Unless we carve this beast into something like five more compact and manageable states, Californians will never have decent representative government at an affordable price.
If California had been on the East Coast, or if it had entered the Union at any time other than the crisis years before the Civil War when slave states jealously worked to minimize the number of free states, the idea of making it one state would have looked absurd from the start. As it is, the constituent parts of California have almost nothing in common. Northern California is more like Washington and Oregon than like anything farther south. The neighborhood of San Francisco Bay has its own history, character and interests that set it off from the rest of the state. Greater Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Far South centered on San Diego also have what it takes to be successful and happily governed states on their own.
Meanwhile, the state is so huge and has so many major media markets that elections for statewide office are prohibitively expensive. Special interests including public sector unions and corporations play a greater role in California, and grassroots politics matters less, than in most of the rest of the country. The vast differences in interest and outlook between its various regions make for stalemate and sterile, lowest common denominator compromises in state politics.
At the time of the first US census in 1790, the total population of all 13 states and the western territories was 3.9 million (pdf). Los Angeles county has more than twice that many people now. The state with the largest population in the US in 1790 was Virginia with almost 394,000 inhabitants. Seven cities in California are bigger than that now.
Representative government in California is not failing because Californians are stupider than other people. It is not failing because we somehow can’t find the right mix of redistricting, constitutional amendments and other chicken-wire-and-spit fixes to kludge a working government together.
Representative government is failing in California because we keep using the wrong template. You can’t run a big city through a series of New England town meetings; you can’t run the 8th biggest economy in the world with an institutional mix designed for much smaller, more homogenous units in a much simpler time. California is a region, not a state, and until we adopt the political institutions that match this reality, the state will continue to fail — our very own Sudan by the sea.
California isn’t the only state with this problem, by the way. New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois are obvious candidates for break up; figuring out how to decentralize and localize state government is an important part of making America work in the 21st century.
There are problems with breaking up states. There are common assets like university and road systems. There’s the question of state debt: should citizens of California’s rural regions be indefinitely saddled with debts due to large infrastructure projects in other parts of the state? There are resource issues (in California, think water above all). There are some non-trivial constitutional issues about how to get it done (joint resolution by Congress following petition? constitutional amendment? something in between?).
There are some cost issues as well: would five state governments be five times as expensive as one, for example? I tend to think not; the less populous states will need less government and less regulation and be free to shed layers of management and governance they never needed in the first place. The new states (like all states) should switch to unicameral legislatures — state senates have served no serious purpose since the Warren Court bizarrely ruled that the traditional overrepresentation of rural areas in many state senates was unconstitutional (each county had the same number of senators regardless of population, like the US Senate and the states).
America can’t afford for California to keep failing, and despite the best efforts of a lot of smart people, there’s no way that the Golden State can function in its current form.
There’s no way around it, friends: we need more stars in our flag.