For decades, California attracted people hoping to experience the American dream. Due in part to high unemployment, low-performing public schools, numerous home foreclosures, a huge budget deficit and legislative gridlock, there is a perception that the Golden State has lost some of its luster.
The Athenian Society, the premier philanthropic support group for the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, discussed the need for sound policy solutions to address the political and economic challenges facing California in the school’s third Dean’s Speaker Series event of the year titled “How Can California Prepare for a Future That’s Already Here?” on April 23.
Held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the event featured University Professor Kevin Starr, a longtime California historian, and Dowell Myers, USC Price professor of demography and urban planning. As two renowned authorities on California, Starr and Myers reflected on the state’s rich historical past and discussed the future social and economic impact of its demographic trends.
“By some measures, California is in a state of crisis,” said USC Price dean Jack H. Knott, who moderated the event. “The economic, social and governance challenges facing the state are urgent and daunting. And it strikes me also that, among some of us, the narrative of California’s future is growing increasingly pessimistic. As though the best days are behind us and, while we have always rebounded in the past, this time could be different.”
Starr put California’s current woes in perspective by pointing out previous times of crisis.
At the time of the gold rush, California was a military territory. The 300,000 Americans who attempted to make their fortunes didn’t want to be governed by the military. So in 1849, the people formed their own government with a constitutional convention held in Monterey.
By 1870, however, that constitution became antiquated, and the state was on the brink of insurrection. It would take 40 years before direct democracy was adopted in 1911, giving California the system that has operated to this day. Starr called that period of little progress a “time-out” and compares it to the current plight of the state.
Starr paraphrased an 1899 quote from David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, that applies to today. “He said, ‘Correction must come, but I don’t exactly see the scenario yet,’ ” Starr said. “It doesn’t mean that California is dysfunctional. But it does mean there is a dysfunction of government because this time-out has gone on too long.”
Myers remains convinced that California has a brighter future than many expect because its natural resources make it so much more attractive and livable than most places. These natural resources, in turn, always can be counted on to bring in the human resources needed to face future challenges.
“Unlike the other states in the country, California has a much younger population,” Myers said. “All those kids we spent that money educating are going to be in the workforce we have going forward – just in time for the baby boomers to retire. When they retire, the whole country is going to be searching for workers. The economic vitality is going to be found in the locations that can maintain a good workforce in ample supply.”
Starr and Myers pointed to 1978’s Proposition 13 as an ongoing problem in California. At a time of a state budget surplus, the initiative decreased property taxes by assessing property values at their 1975 value and making the tax 1 percent of the assessment while limiting annual increases to 2 percent.
Meanwhile, since inflation has averaged 4 percent per year over the last 30 years, the ship has been sinking. But the legislators’ hands have been tied because Proposition 13 made it difficult to raise state taxes by requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses, something practically no other state requires.
Starr longs for the old days when deals would be cut and business could get done by professional politicians. He thinks an alleviation of term limits would lessen some of the gridlock in Sacramento.
“What’s the use of having turnover if there’s a massive incompetence or refusal to negotiate?” Starr asked. “Those politicians who created this nation state, they liked being politicians. They weren’t corrupt. The evidence of real corruption in California in all these years is minimal. You can’t name any major scandal. These were highly accomplished legislators who were proud of what they did and saw that they were not going to go home saying they created an impasse and voted no. They wanted to tell people what they voted yes on.”
Just as the old narrative of out-of-control growth and corrupt legislators supported a citizen revolt that created many of the problems California faces today, the right narrative told properly could get the state back on track.
“You’ve got to tell people something they believe in and get them on the same page together,” Myers said. “If I define what’s wrong in California today, it’s that people are not on the same page at all. And that’s the No. 1 chore. We have to invent this narrative that people of different stripes can come together around. Getting people on the same page is the missing ingredient in America today. I think we’re getting closer to maybe figuring out how to do that.”