Can California Be Saved?
Crime is back up in California. Los Angeles reported a 20.6 percent increase in violent crimes over the first half of 2015 and nearly an 11 percent increase in property crimes.
Last year, cash-strapped California taxpayers voted for Proposition 47, which so far has let thousands of convicted criminals go free from prison and back onto the streets. Now the state may have to relearn what lawbreakers often do when let out of jail early.
The state may be entering the fifth year of a catastrophic drought, but California has not started building any of the new reservoirs that were planned but long ago canceled under the unfinished California Water Project. Water may remain scarce, but legislators — many of whom have their daily water needs met by the ancient reservoirs and canals that their grandparents built — don’t seem overly bothered. They prefer to designate transgender restrooms, ban plastic bags at grocery stores, and prohibit pet dogs from chasing bears and bobcats.
Never has a region been so naturally rich but so poorly run by its latest generation of custodians.
California endures some of the highest gasoline taxes, sales taxes and income taxes in the nation. Yet its roads and public schools rate near the very bottom of U.S. rankings.
Traffic accidents in California increased by 13 percent over a three-year period — the result of terrible roads and worse drivers. Almost half of all accidents in Los Angeles are hit-and-runs where the drivers leave the scene.
California has lots of petroleum and natural gas. It used to be a pacesetter in building nuclear and hydroelectric plants. Yet because of inept governance, the state’s electricity and gasoline prices are among the highest in the nation.
Why is California choosing the path of Detroit — growing government that it cannot pay for, shorting the middle classes, hiking taxes but providing shoddy services and infrastructure in return, and obsessing over minor bumper-sticker issues while ignoring existential crises?
The cause is political. California is a one-party state, without any serious audit of authorities in power.
The California State Assembly currently includes 52 Democrats and 28 Republicans. The California State Senate has 26 Democrats and 14 Republicans.
All of the state’s executive officers are Democrats. Both of its U.S. senators are Bay-area progressives. California’s House delegation is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. The party in power can do as it pleases without being held accountable at the polls.
But what turned a once bipartisan and purple state bright blue?
A perfect storm of events.
Higher taxes and increased regulations have driven out lots of small-business owners. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of disgruntled middle-of-the-road voters voted with their feet and left for no-tax Nevada, Texas or Florida.
The state devolved into a pyramid of the coastal wealthy and interior poor — the dual constituencies of the new progressive movement.
A third of America’s welfare recipients reside in California. Nearly a quarter of Californians live below the poverty line.
Yet nowhere in America are there more billionaires. California’s long, thin coastal corridor has become a tony La-La land unto itself. Some of the highest housing prices in the nation and richest communities are clustered along the Pacific coastline, from the wine country and Silicon Valley to Malibu and Hollywood, dotted by marquee coastal universities and zillionaire tech corporations.
Meanwhile, poorer people in the interior, in places such as Madera and Delano — far from Stanford, Google, Pacific Heights and Santa Monica — require ever more public services. The very rich don’t mind paying the necessary higher taxes, while the strapped, shrinking middle class suffers or flees.
Demography also explains the new true-blue California. It is one of the youngest states, with a median age of 35. Voters tend to be more liberal before they reach 40 — and must take on increasing responsibilities, often for people other than just themselves.
California hosts more undocumented immigrants than any other state. Its percentages of minority and foreign-born residents are among the highest in the country. (One of four California residents was not born in the United States.) As with the young, immigrant groups are likewise traditional liberal constituencies, at least in the early generations.
Good money in California along the affluent coast, for the most part, is not made the old-fashion way — in mining, timber, ranching, farming and construction. Instead, California specializes in high-tech, social media, the Internet, government employment, academia, lawyering and acting.
Profits usually involve programming, investing, financing, hedging, talking, dealing, suing, instructing and regulating. The money is better, the physical work less grubby, and utopia seems attainable in a way impossible when growing lettuce, mining granite, drilling gas wells, producing two-by-fours, building dams or shipping steel.
Could California change?
Only when voters of all persuasions decide to return to the old give-and-take politics that keeps politicians honest.
Or when water taps in the suburbs go dry.
Or perhaps when the state’s growing poor populations connect their exorbitant gas, power and housing costs with an elite agenda of rich coastal liberals, who do not seem to care about the people working hard to glimpse what the elites take for granted.
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