More than six decades ago, social critic Carey McWilliams defined California as a mercurial “great exception” among the states in the rapidity of its growth. After bursting into American consciousness with the Gold Rush of 1849, California built cities and ports and railroads and advertised itself to the world. Elsewhere in the United States, wrote McWilliams, the tempo of development began slowly and gradually accelerated, “but in California, the lights went on all at once, in a blaze and they have never been dimmed.”
How nostalgic these words sound now. Recurrent recessions, a housing collapse, crumbling infrastructure and a decline in educational opportunities have eroded public confidence and dimmed the lights in many corners of California. The ebullient sense of forward motion that pervaded the Golden State in the heady aftermath of World War II, when McWilliams wrote California: The Great Exception, is a distant memory. The optimism was in many ways a byproduct of the war, when California was discovered anew by servicemen who embarked to the Pacific and defense workers who came to work in airplane and munitions factories. Dazzled by California’s blue skies, rolling beaches and easy ways, one newcomer gushed to Life magazine: “Mister, this is Dreamland.”
After the war, California rushed to fulfill the dream. It built new colleges and expanded others for veterans suddenly able to afford higher education because of the G.I. Bill of Rights. Developers bulldozed orchards and replaced them with houses, roads and schools. By 1964, California had become — and remains — the most populous U.S. state. It was a nation-state with a budget that exceeded all but a half-dozen countries in the world, at once an agricultural cornucopia, a concrete matrix of interlocking freeways and a global leader in science and technology with world-class universities and a far-flung array of state and community colleges that were the envy of the country. Spurred by the Cold War, the aerospace industry flourished. During the apogee of California’s development when Democrat Pat Brown was governor from 1959 through 1965, voters at his urging approved the construction of a gigantic aqueduct, visible from space, to transport water from the abundant north to the parched south. For a time, anything seemed possible in California, which appeared to hold the nation’s future in its hands.
Inevitably, however, California began to choke on what McWilliams had called its only constant: “rapid, revolutionary growth.” The skies became less blue and the beaches and freeways more congested. As commutes lengthened and taxes and regulations increased, life in California became stressful. Racial and ethnic tensions rose. Watts rioted. University students rebelled. Farm workers organized. Brown was defeated in 1966 by rising Republican star Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor who had emigrated from Iowa three decades earlier to pursue his Hollywood dreams. Reagan looked askance at government but was astute enough in forward-looking California to refrain from practicing too much of what he preached. Among other things, Reagan signed into law the largest tax increase that had ever been levied in any state and expanded an extensive system of public parks.
California’s tipping point came in 1978, when Reagan was out of office and pursuing the presidency and Brown’s son, Jerry, was governor. The younger Brown was then an apostle of limited government, expressed as “small is beautiful.” He was creative but unfocused — and out of touch. He didn’t realize that many Californians, especially those with fixed retirement income, were in danger of losing their homes because of soaring local property taxes, which rose with every assessment. Brown and the Legislature were sitting on a huge state surplus they could have used for property tax relief. Instead, they ignored the angry homeowners, who turned to the ballot box and approved an initiative known as Proposition 13. The measure capped property taxes and kept many Californians in their homes. But it also put a cap on California’s future by requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes — even though Prop. 13 did not itself achieve this threshold.
California has been struggling ever since. The state took a heavy hit in the early 1990s when the aerospace industry imploded and another a decade later when the dot.com boom collapsed. Just when California was climbing to its feet, the Great Recession struck the overblown housing market with seismic ferocity. From 2005 to 2009 California lost 600,000 jobs, many of them in housing construction and related businesses. Few of these jobs have been regained. California’s unemployment rate in February was 10.9 percent, third highest in the nation. State and local government revenues collapsed during the recession, prompting heavy cutbacks in education spending. Seven million Californians lack health insurance and nearly a quarter of the state’s children are in poverty. A Legislature that in the mid-20th century was known for its professionalism became dysfunctional, perennially balancing the budget with gimmicks that kicked the can down the road while failing to address underlying structural problems.
But help could be on the way in the unlikely form of an older and wiser Jerry Brown. As California’s youngest governor during the two terms he served from 1975 through 1983, Brown flitted from issue to issue, earning the sobriquet of “Governor Moonbeam” from columnist Mike Royko. Times — and Brown — have changed. Brown matured and learned the ropes of hands-on governance during two terms as mayor of Oakland, a gritty city across the bay from San Francisco. He was elected governor again in 2010 and recently celebrated his 74th birthday. Governor Moonbeam no longer, Brown sounded like his father last year as he extolled the virtues of education and pushed through the Legislature the California Dream Act, enabling illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States before they were 16 to receive financial assistance for higher education.
Now, Brown is trying to close the state’s multibillion-dollar state budget gap with an initiative on the November ballot that would raise the sales tax by a quarter cent and increase state income tax rates on those making more than $250,000 a year. Some business groups are grumbling about the tax hikes, and Republicans oppose them. Nonetheless, a USC/Los Angeles Times poll found that 64 percent of Californians favor Brown’s plan. These voters seem responsive to Brown’s plea that education cutbacks imperil the state’s future. California’s two university systems have raised tuitions and limited enrollments. The community college system, crucial for working-class students, has also increased fees and in some cases eliminated courses needed for graduation.
Stephen Levy, who directs the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, believes that the gap between rich and poor will grow without a tax increase.
“Presently, there are two Californias, one of which is prospering and the other which isn’t,” Levy told me.
The prosperous ones, on the whole, are those who make a living in technology, trade or tourism. But Californians who depend for their livelihood on the housing market or inter-related industries, from financial services to furniture manufacturing, are hurting. Levy said the Brown initiative would raise half the revenue California needs to balance its budget and that the continuing recovery should do the rest.
Not everyone agrees. Bill Hauck, former president of the California Business Roundtable, believes that increased revenues from higher taxes won’t help much unless Brown and, even more important, the Democratic-controlled Legislature curb their appetite for spending. Hauck is also skeptical of polls showing the Brown initiative a slam dunk at the ballot box. Historically, measures that raise taxes on the wealthy have attracted well-funded and effective opposition.
But Brown seems determined to lead California back to its glory days when it spent unstintingly on education and development, and his plan has some surprise backers. The Los Angeles Times editorially called Brown’s initiative “a realistic plan.” In Sacramento, lobbyist George Steffes, no fan of Brown’s earlier governorship, said he is doing better this time around. More than four decades ago Steffes was legislative liaison for Reagan when he signed his historic $1 billion tax increase — $6.8 billion in today’s dollars. In those days, Steffes said, governors and legislators came together in crises and did their best for California.
“The old guys did pretty well, and Brown’s an old guy now,” Steffes said.
Economist Stephen Levy, in a view shared by many others, believes the future of California will be written by young people, many of them Latino or Asian, who are now attending increasingly under-funded elementary and high schools and junior colleges. Perhaps Jerry Brown, the old guy who remembers how it used to be, can help the young Californians to keep the lights on in the Golden State.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.