Beyond Brown v. Whitman: The Late Great State Of California
by Joe Paff, October 21, 2010
California has been depicted as a “failed state”: leading the nation in unemployment, adult illiteracy, lowest bond ratings, the near lowest school scores, most people on welfare, highest number of homes underwater. With most of the rest of the nation, we share the increasing disparity between rich and poor, the loss of high paying jobs and their replacement with low paying/ no benefit jobs, the decaying infrastructure and the feeble half-hearted repairs. The present election engenders zero hope and and less interest in voting.
Optimists and realists have turned their hopes to an entire revision of the state constitution. Remaking California, edited by Jeff Lustig (Heyday Press, $16.95) brings together a collection of essays debating these issues (pro and con) and providing essential facts and background stories. Particularly valuable is the political columnist Dan Walters’ terse, very well informed political history, “Decline and Fall,” of the downward slide of the Golden State and the reasons for it. Followed by focused essays on water, immigration, taxation, voting, east LA, regionalism and concluding brief proposals — by politicians, historians, scholars, reformers, Utopians, and poets.
Would abolishing the pointless and redundant state senate and enlarging the assembly reenergize voters and localism? Can we protect the homeowners in their castles without at the same time letting speculators and banks get by with such meager tax rates? Would a simple majority to pass the budget end the annual charade of budget impasse? What follows are ideas stimulated by this timely book.
In the fifties, 35 million people streamed across the new interstate system Moving West — largely to California. They were greeted by large billboards promising “No Down Payment” and hundreds of thousands of tract houses for under $10,000, were sold. To build these houses, and fence God's Little Quarter Acre, required millions of acres of ancient fir and redwood trees to be cut down. To connect them up required thousands of miles of “freeways”; to water the lawns and flush the toilets and provide the frozen packages of vegetables (10 for a dollar) required every river in the state to be placed in cement canals and moved from the wet north to the dry south down the Central Valley. The great film Chinatown depicts the sinister Polanski slitting the nose of “Nosey” reporter Jack Nicholson — but that sinister beginning was soon replaced by the smiling Governor “Pat” Brown. His optimistic water vision involved not just every river of the north but dreamed of heading north all the way to the mighty Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
Today redwood that sold then for less than 3 cents a foot sells for 4 dollars a foot. The GI Bill had democratized and greatly expanded the university systems and none was more splendid than the University of California. When Clark Kerr became President of the system he could brag that half of all the Nobel Prize winners of the western hemisphere were working for UC. The great UC system that was free and open to the top 12 per cent of every high school class is now $12,461 a year and every admission is highly competitive and chancy; every drop of water is fought over by landowner, urban consumer, and agribusiness and certainly not “free”: gasoline is not 15 cents a gallon but under-priced at $3-plus; The $10,000 house could not be built for less than $200,000, not counting the land; the $20,000 Eichler houses of Palo Alto couldn't be had for $2 million; veggies are now bought one by one and not in large boxes; the smiling Pat Brown is replaced by the ascetic Jerry Brown and the smiling Meg Whitman is more accurately described as the grimacing Meg — resembling a gambler who has tried to buy the pot and is terribly worried she's blown $140 million playing Texas hold ’em with a monk.
Where'd it all go wrong? Was there a concealed “balloon payment” not mentioned on the “No Down Payment” billboards? Were the free wood, the free water, the free university, the cheap gas, the almost free house — all an illusion? Let's go back to the Smiling Fifties. At that time each of California's 58 counties had its own senator. That meant populous Los Angeles had one senator and remote northern counties with no population each had one too. This rankled urbanites and progressives alike — the Progressives believed much more progressive policies would result if all the backwoods counties had one senator for all their counties and LA and SF would have the majority. Their moment came when Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in 1962 — Baker v. Carr – and in 1964 (Reynolds v. Sims) — that legislators should be apportioned on a “one-person, one-vote” basis; that one man one vote required the California Senate to reconstitute itself entirely by population — he complacently sneered that senators didn't represent acres or trees (now that the trees were gone) but people. He said the “Federal analogy” (after-all, didn't the constitution embody precisely this principle in giving Nevada two senators just like California) was irrelevant. I suspect he and the progressives would have liked to abolish the national senate as well, giving California, Texas, Florida, and New York most of the senate.
Far from having the results expected, the now redundant California Senate of 40, coupled with the two-thirds requirement to pass the budget — permits a faction of 14 senators (13 +1) to shut down the state once a year and that is precisely what happens. In an Epilogue to Remaking California which includes short pieces from people like Kevin Starr, Jean Ross, William Vollman and Gary Snyder—John Vasconcellos explains how under the two-thirds rule which enshrines minority rule just 8 of the Senates 15 Republicans — a majority of a small minority — holds 38 million Californians hostage.
What about the $10,000 houses? As the free wood and free water and free land vanished the cost of building additional houses went up and up and every time someone sold a $10,000 house the price doubled and redoubled. This meant every year property taxes rose and rose until a tax revolt occurred. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, stopping the endless reassessment of houses for property taxes, passed by initiative, the nation's first “Tea Party” rebellion. Now the local governments that had already lost all power in the senate also lost any ability to raise money. From then on the only way to get $$$ for education was to go to Sacramento and beg or dream up another bond issue to place on the ballot. These bond issues could only pass with a coalition of all public employees — especially police, prison guards, firemen — uniting with school teachers, nurses, etc., and so the never ending upward spiral of public employee salaries and pensions has no discernible limits.
Meanwhile local governments have turned every conceivable “permit” into a revenue source rather than an ordinary public service. Could a house be built today for less than $70,000 in permits? This used to be the cost of seven of those $10,000 homes. And each of these local bureaucratic potentates belongs to a statewide professional association of “building inspectors,” “health inspectors,” school “administrators,” hospital administrators, police union, etc., etc., and employs full time lobbyists in the paralyzed state capital endlessly extending their authority and embellishing their bailiwicks. And above all, raising their salaries and retirement benefits. As Max Weber pointed out a century ago, it is not the triumph of the working class that is inevitable but the triumph of the official — a triumph he predicted would produce an ossification beyond that of ancient Egypt.
The trees and acres that Chief Justice Warren sneered at have long ago shown they didn't need senators to express their power. Just six months after Reynolds v Sims in December of 1964 the “great flood” on the Eel River struck. The hills, stripped of their trees, sluiced down their winter rains and swept away the railroad that once ran down our coast and all the habitat of the salmon and steelhead. Millions of feet of redwood trees and lumber and thousands of acres vanished into the Pacific. Among the many unpaid bills of the Golden State the rehabilitation of the environment is proving not only costly but probably impossible.
Consider Meg Whitman, in whom all the contradictions of the situation are perfectly embodied. First the poster child of non-voting. She was too busy making money to vote and wasn't it easier all along to just send a check? To “whatever” candidate? Does she speak for the “non-voter”? The seven million eligible voters who aren't registered? The largely Latin, Asian, young, poor non-voters? Actually Meg's demographic — wealthy, educated, homeowning white — is by far the most likely vote. Isn't her willingness to spend $140 million of her own dollars sufficient evidence of how much she “cares”?
She needs an issue — so how about “education” — after all, she was marketing director for Hasbro toys and didn't they own “Playskool” and “Mr. Potatohead”? And didn't she import “Teletubbies”? Do these sound like plans to improve our educational system's abominable present record? Sure she hired an illegal woman as housekeeper but didn't she fire her when she decided to run for governor? And it's Jerry Brown's fault if the woman gets deported because Meg was sure going to keep her mouth shut. The employers she promised to crack down on were Other Employers and their employees deserve to be deported.
Do most people know that localities once permitted all residents to vote locally whether citizens or not? That 42% of Californians speak a language other than English in their homes?
The stats system of representation has been turned upside down. Elected officials, instead of being picked by the voters, “reach into the electorate and, aided by polling, focus groups, and targeted ads, pick the voters who support their positions.” (p. 113) “The German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once imagined a situation in which the people had “forfeited the confidence of the government,” and asked, “Would it not be easier/ in that case for the government/ to dissolve the people/ and elect another?” California's governing elites have come up in effect with the same idea and have been trying to accomplish the feat for years. Rather than being the cause of the representative crisis, Lustig shows the state’s extensive nonvoting is its product.
When Jerry Brown during his first tenure as governor announced the age of endless expansion of everything was over, that small was beautiful and less was the new “more” he was ridiculed as Governor Moonbeam and hopelessly out of touch with California's sacred right of endless excess. We deserve everything — even bigger muscles — just look at Barry Bonds and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gray Davis ran as far from Jerry Brown as he could get “Gray Davis — Always for the death penalty” was his slogan. Only to be recalled and replaced by Schwarzenegger who ran into precisely the same deadlocked and stalemated Sacramento and watched his popularity sink to zero despite the smile and the muscles. Davis was elected by 35 per cent of eligible voters — the same percentage as the recall and replacement with Schwarzenegger.
Did we learn anything from the Brown-Whitman “debates”? Was there a single moment of “debate” that anyone detected?
During the last debate Meg Whitman showed how “populist” she was by bragging she'd campaigned “out there” three or four times a week and had spoken to a truck driver. Presumably this was more often than Jerry Brown. Jerry did nothing for months — relying on name recognition and old standby contributors — teachers and public employee unions. Meg relied on the vast pile of money she'd siphoned off her E-bay fencing operation and fat cat peers who expect to benefit with tax breaks. The moment the debate ended TV viewers were assaulted by strident ads making precisely these points — Meg portrayed with piles of cash and laid off employees, Jerry the professional politician beholden to public worker unions. Not the slightest indication of any “real” support for either: no student groups, no community organizations, no grassroots whatsoever. How different this election would have been if Jerry Brown had built his campaign around a voter registration drive.
“Remaking California” wants to ask “cui bono?” — who benefits from the present stalemate? One way to answer this question is to ask who spent most of the $1 billion dollars lobbied into Sacramento in the past decade? This money came from oil companies, chamber of commerce, teachers and public employee unions, pharmaceutical industries, banks and realtors, and Indian casinos — and these are all booming businesses. For Jeff Lustig, the answer is corporate interests, the wealthy (the top 1% who scoop up 25% of all income), the exploiters of the public realm. At book meetings discussing Lustig’s collection people want to add “public employees” and their unions — an answer that Jeff considers to be scapegoating. But no one wants to discuss “the constitution” more than libertarians and tea baggers. And since they would be adamantly present at any constitutional convention we know this debate is essential. For the first time — progressives, greens, activists of all stripes, would be forced to talk to the frustrated tea baggers who feel so scorned and the libertarians who feel so right. And yes the corporate interests and their bevies of think tankers and academic front men would be there too. Perhaps the biggest benefit from the effort? Constitutions are more than exercises in institutional arrangements or sets of carefully crafted legal definitions. They are more organic — like the bodily constitution which is not a collection of New Years Resolutions. A real convention could occur only after a long statewide series of debates in every community. One that included Latin American values and priorities? Asian concerns and values? One that mobilized the vast non-participants?
An inspiring vision! Read the book! Participate! Resurrect forgotten maxims — “All Power to the People” and “Move your ass and your brain will follow.” ¥¥
* * *
(Joe Paff received these two initial replies to this essay after it was published on CounterPunch.org.)
I was particularly encouraged by your discussion on one-man-one-vote and what it did to the state Senate. I am so old, I witnessed that transformation while working on a statewide campaign and later managed a senate campaign.
There are few state Senate districts that don't include large rural areas. They have all become, via gerrymandering, urban tails wagging rural dogs. The state senators of old were the elected leaders of their counties, a natural focus for political activity and discussion. They were a lively, contentious group last managed by George Miller Jr., a man with a voice like a cement mixer. They were quite a group: Teale, Begovich, Collier, Williams, Deukmejian, Mills, Stern, Way, Knox… Whenever Mills met Collier in the halls, he had the habit of bursting into song — “paved over Paradise, turned into a parking lot.”
They represented coherent districts. To the extent they were capable of coherence (abilities varied), they defended coherent interests, in a way that now appears romantically utopian — they represented watersheds or at least linked watersheds. Even groundwater basins.
Working on the famous “Ear-Wimp” process in the San Joaquin Valley, we've noticed that most of the time, despite the Department of Water Resources’ insistence that regional groups follow watersheds and basins rather than political jurisdiction (if they want that grant $), frequently the political jurisdictions already follow the water, surface and aquifer.
Brown just sold out the Delta for Kaufman-Broad/Westlands Water District $, which he needs very badly right now. Also, add Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Water District, which also draws from the San Luis Reservoir). At the moment he was making that decision, state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, was being locked out of meetings of the most important current committee on the Delta, which she represents much of.
As I told Alex Cockburn the other day in a discussion on Brown, when they term-limited the Legislature, they forgot to term-limit the lobbyists.
I agree with Lustig and you: California politics from the city to the Congress has not been as dominated by special interests since the Railroad controlled California and my grandfather was working for Wells Fargo Express.
— Bill Hatch, Merced
* * *
I read your essay on Cali and found it wonderfully rich and historic. I was born in Cali. My mother graduated from Sac High in the 1940s. I left for Harlem shortly after high school but returned to eventually graduate from UC Santa Cruz. I have lived in DC since the week before the Loma Prieta earthquake, but I always considered California home until my most recent visit to Sacramento this summer. What really stood out for me was the disparities. The la-dee-da and law-in-order attitudes prevalent among recent arrivals who have settled downtown where I was born. Downtown no doubt has all the creativity, money, infrastructure and beauty compared to the southland where I graduated high school. The poor and homeless who once congregated downtown have been pushed to the margins into empty fields and abandoned lots scattered throughout this place where it seems desperate humans have been dumped en-mass along the railroad. There are no good jobs. No factories (except for Campbell’s Soup where hundreds of formally well-to-do line up for a few seasonal jobs). Few cultural centers. No nothing — only misery, foreclosures, outdoor drug markets, hopelessness and crime.
I always believed I would one day return to Cali to Curtis Park where I spent the majority of my California days. I remember the hobos, winos, tramps and things like that and I never had any fear. I was not raised to be afraid or to loathe the less fortunate. We had so many fruit trees: figs, pomegranates, cherry trees, citrus, apricots, plum trees, loquats, kumquats, peaches, grapes and such we rarely bought fruit. I never knew of the ugliness. I remember California as a beautiful place. I remember not only Tower Records but the Tower Theatre where they used to give out free ice cream to children. My mother worked at the California State Law Library. She was a good looking black woman stepping out of that Greek temple dressed to the T. My handsome father, a WWII Marine, was a longshoreman and he made lots of money. We had a beautiful life. A modest home in Curtis Park. I don't think working-class people even live in Curtis Park anymore; if they do they are surely not my color. When I visit there new residents often talk to me like I must have lost my way, but I'm not the one who is lost.
The California that I am so fond of and remember so well may you rest in peace. Like the Gold Rush, that day has come and it has passed. No one can resurrect its lifeless body especially not political corpses with big money or name recognition. Nor can an influx of new residents whatever their language, numbers, or SAT scores. All that remains of it are a few fragments in the minds of us who remember when California was a truly golden experience and the hope for humanity.
Thank you for your wonderful piece. I just can't stop crying though because I know I can never live again the life that I once knew.
— Myron Briggs, Washington DC
* * *
(Joe and Karen Paff roast their Gold Rush Coffee in Petrolia. Joe formerly taught political science at UC Berkley and Stanford. He can be reached at email@example.com.)