California's Politics of Farce


Karl Marx wrote, "History repeats ... first as tragedy, then as farce." Nothing better describes how California, with its unmatched natural and human riches, has begun to morph into what the premier California historian Kevin Starr has called "a failed state" – a term more usually applied to African kleptocracies than a place as blessed as the Golden State.

The tragedy begins with the collapse of a governance system once widely hailed as a leader in efficiency and foresight but which now perpetually teeters at the brink of insolvency and suffers among the worst credit ratings of all the states. Only 20 years ago, the state's fiscal debt per capita was just below the national average; now it ranks consistently toward the bottom No surprise, then, that California routinely ranked as the "worst governed" state in America.

This poor performance has consequences, particularly in terms of business. Today, CEOs rank California as just about the worst place to do business in the country, and have for a remarkable eight years in a row. And it's not just the plutocrats who are angry; a survey by the economic forecasting firm EMSI shows that, in 2011, California also ranked 50th, just ahead of Michigan, in new business startups.

Unlike my conservative friends, I do not think the fault lies entirely with the Democrats. Instead, it has to do with the total eclipse of the state's once-lively two-party system. As Starr has noted, California's golden age of governance from the 1940s to the 1960s was largely a bipartisan affair, with power shifting between the parties. "Despite their differences," Starr writes, "Democrats and Republicans saw sufficiently eye-to-eye" to embrace policies that drove California's growth.

Progressives, for their part, often suggest this paradigm died with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which diminished local government and concentrated fiscal power in Sacramento. Yet even as late as early 1990s, when the state was facing a dire recession due to the end of the Cold War, liberal Democrats such as Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and state Sen. John Vasconcellos managed to work well with Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and business leaders like Peter Ueberroth to force policy changes that helped spur the state's last sustained recovery.

The more recent demise of California governance stems from demographic trends and political miscalculations that have turned our state increasingly into something akin to Mexico under the old dictatorship of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). Wilson's decision to embrace the anti-illegal-immigration measure Prop. 187 as part of his 1994 re-election strategy helped precipitate this shift. Although Prop. 187, which passed easily, helped in the short run, it crippled the Republican Party in the ensuing decades.

Before 1994, Republicans were capable of winning upward of two-fifths of the Latino vote. But after that, as the Latino portion of the electorate grew, from 7 percent in 1980 to more than 21 percent today, these voters became, much like the African-American vote, essentially a bloc owned by the Democrats. In 2010, Jerry Brown won nearly two-thirds of their votes in his bid to return as governor. Asian voters, despite their decidedly middle-class and entrepreneurial bent, sensed the whiff of nativism among Republicans and also turned to the Democrats. With minority communities' share of the electorate growing every year, the GOP essentially has backed itself into permanent minority status.

This has set the stage for a bizarre political farce, where minority representatives in Sacramento – with few exceptions – consistently vote against the interests of their own constituents on issues such as water allocations in the Central Valley or regulations that boost energy and housing prices. In their clamor to join the "progressive" team, they, in effect, are placing the California "dream" outside the reach of the state's heavily minority working class.

It's almost surreal to see people who represent impoverished East Los Angeles and Fresno, for example, vote exactly the same way as those who represent rich, white and older voters in Marin County and Westside Los Angeles. You don't have to watch "Downton Abbey" to see "upstairs, downstairs" politics. Despite mouthing progressive rhetoric, California's minority legislators seem intent of creating an increasingly feudalized California.

And what of the middle class – once the bastion of both the GOP and the kind of "responsible liberalism" that promoted growth under the late Gov. Pat Brown? This largely Anglo group has been shrinking, both for decades as a percentage of California's population and, during the past 10 years, in absolute numbers. From 2000-10 the number of non-Hispanic whites in the state dropped from 15.8 million to 14.95 million.

Increasingly, the residual California middle class is either part of the public sector nomenklatura or the swelling ranks of retirees. These people often feel no compulsion to leave California for the reasons – such as weather and high property taxes – that drive their counterparts out of places like New York or Illinois. In contrast, the productive, working-age private middle class, harassed by taxes, regulations and soaring costs, increasingly appears more of an endangered species than the famed Delta smelt.

Of course, there remain pockets of private sector strength, such as Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as well as the various biomedical and biotech companies that still thrive in places such as Orange County and San Diego. These, however, increasingly represent legacy industries, beneficiaries of past accomplishments and better entrepreneurial conditions. Yet, even here, despite the current tech boom, California's position over the past decade has declined relative to more business-friendly states.

In the immediate future, we should expect more of the same from our one-party government. Flush from the passage of Prop. 30, tax increases backed by public sector unions, there is little to restrain them beyond occasional resistance from Gov. Brown. Having made California's income taxes the highest in the U.S., legislators and local officials are already busily concocting new taxes, fees and another spate of bond issues to prop up the nation's most-cosseted public sector, and, of course, fund its rich pensions at the expense of mostly middle-class taxpayers.

Indeed the emphasis on income taxes, representing now close to half of state revenue, creates perverse economic outcomes. With their funds hidden in overseas accounts and other dodges, Hollywood moguls and their Silicon Valley counterparts may hang around, mouthing progressive shibboleths while dining exquisitely. But there is clearly erosion among the less-glamorous entrepreneurial class. The number of households earning above $300,000 dropped by 45,000 from 2006-09, according to the Department of Finance, while those earning under $100,000 has grown by more than 180,000. It's likely that Prop. 30 will accelerate this trend.

But it's not only taxes that will depress growth. Our Mad Hatter one-party, public-sector-dominated state seems keen to press its regulatory assault on employers and job creators. With climate change-related legislation certain to boost already high energy costs, we also can expect industries, from food processing to semiconductors and aerospace, to continue heading to friendlier locales.

Unless these policies are challenged, California will continue to underperform well below its potential. Even worse, a state that created the modern American Dream of upward mobility will continue to devolve toward a kind of neofeudalism dominated by a few rich, with many poor and a well-fed, tenured government caste. The only way to halt this continuing farce in Sacramento is for Californians of all backgrounds to recognize that government that so earnestly claims to serve "the people" is doing anything but that.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.