Tuesday, September 28, 2010

California Dreaming

Found David Brooks this morning in the Times trying to be even handed in assigning blame to California's fall from grace, after applauding the progressives who once led the state:

Between 1911 and the ’60s, California had a series of governors — like Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown — who were pro-market and pro-business, but also progressive reformers.
They rode a great wave of prosperity, and people flocked to the Golden State, but they used the fruits of that prosperity in a disciplined way to lay the groundwork for even more growth. They built an outstanding school and university system. They started a series of gigantic public works projects that today are seen as engineering miracles. These included monumental water projects, harbors and ports, the sprawling highway system and even mental health facilities.
They disdained partisanship. They continually reorganized government to make it more businesslike and cost effective. “Thus,” the historian Kevin Starr has written, “California progressivism contained within itself both liberal and conservative impulses, as judged by the standards of today.”
...In fits and starts, California’s progressive model has been abandoned. The state’s current economic decline and political stagnation is a result of that abandonment. Now California government has all the dysfunctions that mark national government, but at a more advanced stage.
Both parties helped kill off California’s pro-market progressivism. Some assaults came from the left. First, there was the growing power of the public sector employee unions. These unions began lobbying for richer salaries and pensions. That, of course, is their job. But in the 1970s, governors started caving in. Money that could have gone into development went into prison guard benefits. Infrastructure spending, for example, has dropped from 20 percent of the state budget to 3 percent.
...Another assault on California progressivism came from the right. Conservatives refused to acknowledge the public sector’s role in creating the state’s prosperity. With Proposition 13 and other measures that cut taxes, they cut off revenue and pushed through structural reforms, making it hard for future administrations to raise funds. Many on the right became unwilling to think creatively about using government to promote prosperity.


He writes, too, implying that California exhibits a decline also seen in the rest of the country.

I'd add a few things. The environmental movement has been 'anti-growth' in the context of the Santa Barbara oil spill, water troubles and a few other concrete issues. The prison guards' union grew in part as the prisons themselves grew, in response to the 'war on drugs', mandatory sentencing and other horrors. Then there's Medicaid and all those brown people.

But Brooks is here, as he has tentatively suggested elsewhere, accepting a bipartisanship of the sort Obama (whom Brooks has supported, too) has been dreaming of, one in which government action is accepted by Republicans and fiscal restraint by Democrats, but the work gets done. He's anchoring prosperity in that of the middle class, and noticing it's threatened or gone, and that government inaction is in part to blame.

Now, the states have to balance budgets; the national government doesn't, and, in lean times, shouldn't. He still talks about federal fiscal restraint as key to recovery. Like that. But he's looking for common ground with others at a time when left and right--I'd say center and left on the one hand, crazies on the other--face each other across a blasted heath. I disagree with him often. I'm not in the it's-everybody's-fault camp. I'd like Obama to move towards a political position he'd find less satisfactory. And when he talks of philosophy and sociology, I find myself bemused. But were he representative of the right in this country, I could live with that. And I don't see anybody of prominence in the Republican Party even close to being able to embrace Brooks' column today, once which not only concedes the possibility of effective government, but cites an example, applauds it, finds it necessary, and ascribes catastrophe to its absence.

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