The Atlantic recently published a quintessential “puff piece” about Governor Jerry Brown that talks in depth about the man and offers a primer about the state itself. Because it is a long article, I will summarize it here:
First, the state of California is unwieldy due to several deeply-ingrained political peculiarities, such as (a) direct democracy, (b) a weak legislature, and (c) a widespread defeatist sense that the state is ungovernable.
Second, the state suffers two fiscal issues which are (a) limits on property tax and (b) extreme public sector union expenses. The author more or less ignores these problems in favor of discussing the issues enumerated above.
Third, the Governor is such a seasoned and self-cultivated statesman, that he has used pragmatism and deep understanding of the state’s politics to delicately navigate the situation — ultimately culminating in a positive annual budget.
Fourth, the Governor is totally awesome and super mature. He’s kind of Zen too.
But here’s the real TL;DR version of the article, if we must sum it up quickly and eloquently: “California is a hopeless shithole, and a master politician is now spraying some Febreeze on it.”
Along the way, the author concedes that the Febreeze is weak… a lot of the “comeback” is due to a nationally improving economy and spending cuts, though what exactly has been cut is unclear. Certainly nothing of substance. Much of the fiscal improvement is from Proposition 30, a massive tax hike that sniped out entrepreneurs that I have written about many times before (including in my article where I cite Proposition 30 as a reason for me leaving California, a process that is well underway… and which I couldn’t be happier about).
But this article is not about the tragedy of Proposition 30. It’s about how an Atlantic puff piece that generally gushes over Jerry Brown and seems to paint the state with a brush of optimism is actually…downright depressing.
Because what the article really conveys is a defeatist message. And, even worse… The author is absolutely correct.
As usual, with the state of California, he points to the “good” and the “bad.”
The good: innovation, a welcoming attitude towards immigrants, a culture of risk taking, and breathtaking natural beauty with abundant natural resources. The bad: dysfunctional government, awful schools, busted roads, and a prison system so despicable that the Supreme Court considers it unconstitutional.
Now — what do we notice about the “good” and the “bad”?
Perhaps we could ask a child who has graduated from one of California’s horrifically bad elementary schools to look carefully at those two lists and observe a pattern…
Hmmm… let’s see here. Ah! There it is! Everything on the “bad” list is managed by California’s state government. Everything on the “good” list has absolutely nothing to do with the government.
Sure, a few of the blind, pro-California wishful types will argue that we have great universities, totally oblivious to the fact that even this one rare gem of civic achievement is in a downward spiral. UC Berkeley is a testament to the achievement of men and women long dead.
But other than a few UCs, the state of California offers nothing to its people. Nothing worth paying for, that is — and certainly nothing worth paying 13.3 percent of your income towards.
That’s right, I said 13.3 percent.
Immediately after reading the article, I got brunch with my cousin and his girlfriend who live in Seattle. And I asked them what was so terrible about their state. After all, the state of Washington has zero income tax, so something must be missing. They must be deprived of something with so little state revenue.
“Well, we really hate the rain,” my collegiate relative explained, to which his girlfriend added, “and the nightlife could be more exciting.”
No complaints about their excellent university or their roads. No moaning about homeless problems. One of them went to a local Seattle public high school, and appears to be doing just fine. As for the weather? Nothing the Governor can do about that, though I suppose that they have budgeted for the harsh impacts of perpetually inclement weather… even without taking cash from Jeff Bezos’ or Bill Gates’ pockets.
Washington provides much and takes little. How does California differ? Well, according to The Atlantic, the state’s goal is to provide the absolute minimum in terms of fostering its private citizens’ success:
Still, California’s challenge is America’s: how to manage public business competently enough—collecting taxes, covering costs, educating children, fostering research, protecting the environment, maintaining order—to allow the creative carnival of its private activities to go on. And this is where Jerry Brown’s accomplishment seems most impressive.
It is not the role of government to merely “get out of the way” of small businesses. It is the role of government to provide those “pure public” services that no corporation can offer — military protection, roads, emergency services, and (debatably) schools.
And because the federal government handles a lot of the above, one would think that the state could get its act together.
The California government of the middle 20th century gave us all those things and more, at a time when population growth was three to five times faster than it is now.
The last (and only) time that I ever called 911, the man on the other line recommended that I take a taxi to the ER to save money. It was a good suggestion, since that trip would have cost me $2,000 (on top of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that I paid in taxes to the state).
As a person who has started his new company outside of California, and who now spends a minority of his time there, a lot of these problems don’t impact me anymore. I am opting out — and while some people would say that I am “running away” from the problem, I don’t see any reason why I am obligated to hang around and fix it.
But here’s what does impact me: The city of New York.
I love the fact that I can take a subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a matter of minutes, the “L” line runs like clockwork. I like how the fire department showed up to my office’s front door last week to do a routine inspection of the premises for safety purposes. (Can’t put all your trust in landlords these days.) I like how I can walk around Manhattan at any hour and feel safe. I like how Williamsburg is so much cleaner than the Mission.
And the combined state and city taxes in New York, while high, will be much lower than if I keep living in San Francisco.
There are cheaper places in America, to be sure, but in New York you get what you pay for — in California, your tax dollar goes nowhere, except maybe a smoldering hellish dark pit somewhere. (Yes, that was a subtle jab at the prison guard union.)
So we can let publications like The Atlantic cheerlead a “comeback” that even it admits is possibly a façade. We can pretend that Jerry Brown has solved the problems even a little bit. We can act like California is on its way up. And we can celebrate “qualified victories” that are “maybe kind of a small start.”
But we all know what two times zero equals.
At best, California is reaching for mediocrity, and with the perfect alignment of political stars, maybe it will come within reach of it.
But once we come to terms with its incompetent political system, then that’s still pretty good. Right? If we all just agree to lower our standards significantly, then we can feel good about these tiny victories? Correct?