Dear Washington, D.C.,
I know that your politicians will say anything to get elected and your wonks are grasping for new solutions. But I find it hard to believe how many people in your town are saying that I, the great state of California, am some sort of model for you and the country you govern.
Strangely, this recent swoon is not about my good looks. No, it’s about my less flattering side – governance. Still more peculiar is that the compliments headed my way are coming from people across your political spectrum.
Liberals say my policies are an antidote to your gospels of cheap labor, immigration limits and deregulation. Conservatives praise Gov. Jerry Brown’s emphasis on frugality and debt reduction as a contrast to big-spending Democrats in Washington.
Democrats tout the virtues of California’s Democratic-dominated state government as a contrast to D.C.’s divided government. Congressional Republicans are pushing a plan to install California-style supermajorities to make it harder to raises taxes. And centrist good government types say recent political reforms here – like our new redistricting commission – will reduce gridlock.
From what I can see – and my view is obscured by the Sierra – all this praise is so contradictory that none of it can be taken seriously. And so I don’t. If you live in California (or are California, as I am), you remember that just two years ago the state was ungovernable – and you know that not much has changed here in the last two years. Despite some improvements, our spending on key services remains low, and our income and sales taxes remain high. Our inland counties still battle poverty, and our coastal counties are still rich, innovative – and expensive.
Our culture is open-minded, but we haven’t thought up ways to address our big problems in prisons, health care, higher education access and water. In this context, I find myself puzzled not only by the idea of me as national model, but also by the fact that this praise is coming from Washington. Today, perhaps more than ever before, California must look to D.C. for answers and help.
Of course, the truth we don’t often admit here, even to ourselves, is that California has long been D.C.’s creature. You protected Yosemite and other scenic wonders that define us. You made possible the railroads and highways and airlines that people have traveled to get here. And you funded the defense industries that built 20th century California; even the Internet started out as a U.S. Department of Defense program.
Today, you still hold the purse strings, because you’re still the only place that can print money. And so California’s richest people are more interested in spending their billions on your politics than on ours. The federal government has taken over our prisons. Washington is making decisions that will determine whether California’s two highest-profile projects – high-speed rail and the water tunnels under the Delta – become reality. And if the Edward Snowden affair proves anything, it’s that there’s not much that California companies Google and Facebook can do to stop the federal government from seizing Americans’ communications.
So while you think you have your problems in the capital, you have surpassed California in many ways. More people are moving to you while my population is stagnant. Your residents are better educated and wealthier than mine. Heck, the median value of a D.C. home is now $60,000 more than the median value of a California home – an amazing juxtaposition when you consider how good my weather is, and how awful yours is.
Given your emergence as America’s wealthiest city, it’s surpassingly weird, to my ears, when your people say they can’t do big things. Because you’ve done so many big things in the past decade that I’m kind of envious: the bank bailout, the auto bailout, the stimulus, Obamacare and a couple wars. In California, we’re too hamstrung by our initiative politics and supermajorities to contemplate giant moves.
D.C., your biggest problem may be your lack of perspective. Stop whining about how divided and frustrated you are. Stop looking to California and elsewhere for models. And start focusing your considerable resources on becoming a better model for us.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).