In Brief: America’s Shadow Self
Ruinous policies have transformed California from a symbol of progress to a cautionary tale for the nation.
More people are leaving California than coming, which tells us a lot about the results of one-party rule. In a lengthy article for City Journal, Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress and author of San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, explains the sad “progress” made by the Golden State:
For roughly 100 years, California was America’s synecdoche: the part of the country that best represented its whole. It was town and country, coastal metropolis and interior farmland, opportunity and freedom. It was Hollywood, the defense industry, and the high-tech economy. Its people were both high-achieving and laid-back, able to enjoy the state’s natural bounty, from the beaches and cliffs to the forests and Sierras. California boasted a pioneering public education system, in which every child, no matter how poor, could receive a good education. It had affordable suburbs, built around nuclear families. It was growing, quadrupling its population after World War II. In a word, California represented progress.
Now the state has become America’s shadow self. True, it is more prosperous than ever, surpassing Germany last year to become the world’s fourth-largest economy. But Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and smaller cities are today overrun by homeless encampments, which European researchers more accurately describe as “open drug scenes.” Crime has become so rampant that many have simply stopped reporting it, with nearly half of San Franciscans telling pollsters that they were a victim of theft in the last five years and a shocking one-quarter saying that they had been assaulted or threatened with assault.
These pathologies are just the most visible manifestations of a deeper rot. Less than half of California’s public school students are proficient in reading, and just one-third are proficient in math (with a stunning 9 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Latinos in L.A. public schools proficient in eighth-grade math). Education achievement declined precipitously in California in 2021, as the state kept children studying at home well after kids in other states had returned to the classroom. Californians pay the most income tax, gasoline tax, and sales tax in the United States, yet suffer from electricity blackouts and abysmal public services. Residential electricity prices grew three times faster in 2021 than they did in the rest of the United States. And the state government, dependent on income taxes, faces a projected $23 billion budget deficit that will only grow if the nation’s economy enters a recession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these trends, California’s population stopped expanding in 2014 and has slightly declined since, resulting in the loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census.
Shellenberger writes of homelessness and efforts to reduce it before asking:
What explains California’s dramatic decline? And what would it take for the state to return to its former greatness?
Democrats can’t honestly blame Republicans, who haven’t been in power in the state in a number of years. But their other efforts to cast blame likewise fall short.
Shellenberger goes on at length to review various happenings and philosophies related to California. That includes nihilists, who he says “are busily destroying the institutions that make civilization possible.”
California’s decline … flows from the same forces that destroy all once-great civilizations. It became decadent and nihilistic, escapist and intoxicated. A victim of its own success, it has been brought down by the spoiled children of its successful creators.
Is there any hope? Shellenberger offers this:
It is thus understandable why so many have given up on California and treat it simply as an example of what not to do. But change in the U.S. often starts in California and moves east. And neither party has set forth a compelling alternative to the California model. Anti-woke liberals and conservatives alike who have chosen to stay in California should take the opportunity to build a new political movement based on a clear-eyed assessment of the situation, an expansive vision, and first principles. A political coalition that differentiated itself from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, while retaining support from moderate Democrats, could command immense political support by focusing on two issues alone—homelessness and schools. Add public order, nuclear energy, water desalination, and sensible housing policies, and such a movement could be of generational importance.
At the heart of the new anti-woke alliance’s offering to California voters is a memory of what California once was — and anger at those preventing its restoration. California’s cities should be safe, its schools the greatest, and its people the healthiest, yet they’re not — and taxpayers’ money too often makes things worse. In the grip of ecological and human pessimism, the state’s leaders are pursuing an antihuman agenda.
Such anger should be motivating. It is grotesque that, in the name of repairing slavery, we are depriving all kids, but especially black ones, of a proper education. It is abhorrent that, in the name of helping victims, we are leaving them to be assaulted, overdose, and die on our sidewalks. We can’t change the fact that California is America’s synecdoche, the part standing for the whole. And so we must change the synecdoche.
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