California, are you an incubator for great ideas – or a bubble that shuts them out?
That’s the question Californians must ask, as we simultaneously confront big challenges, from climate change to our housing shortage to threats from the Trump administration. The bubble-or-incubator question is also the best way to understand the fights being waged in the Legislature this summer.
Take the debate over the recent extension of California’s cap-and-trade system. Can our mechanism for controlling greenhouse gases be adopted around the world? Or is California pursuing a foolish one-state war on climate change that will land us in a bubble of economy-destroying regulations?
Take the debate over California’s cap-and-trade system. Can our mechanism for controlling greenhouse gases be adopted around the world? Or is California pursuing a foolish one-state war on climate change?
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The state’s debate over its housing crisis offers a different spin on the question. Can California devise ways to incubate new and more affordable housing? Or will it allow local governments to keep housing out of their bubble-like cities?
The controversy over legislation to make ours a “sanctuary state” by limiting cooperation between California law enforcement and federal immigration authorities poses another bubble-or-incubator quandary.
Lawmakers understandably want to make sanctuary protections as strong as possible, given the importance of the undocumented to California and its communities as well as Trump’s ugly attempts at mass deportation. But California’s determination to extend protections even to undocumented criminals has alienated some law enforcement officials even in progressive cities.
Is an uncompromising sanctuary policy likely to isolate California politically? Or would legislation that preserves law enforcement flexibility be more likely to be adopted as a model in other states, thereby offering more protection to more immigrants?
Policy change is never easy here. In other contexts, the state, by failing to update itself, has become an anachronistic bubble.
Take higher education. Once a model, the state’s Master Plan for three distinct university systems – UC, Cal State, and community colleges – has become a straitjacket preventing our universities from partnering with other institutions to produce the greater numbers of college graduates California needs. Free speech on campus is another bubble-or-incubator question. Should universities be insular safe spaces that protect students, or incubators that encourage collisions between people and ideas, even those that offend?
Incubation can be overdone. In the Bay Area, there are so many incubators (or, if you prefer, combinators or accelerators) that they comprise their own sector. And California startups, nonprofits or government agencies often falsely advertise themselves as offering new models.
Consider the new “California model” that the state school board is touting to track the progress of schools. Sounds good, but it’s a fiendishly complicated system that makes it harder for parents and communities to hold campuses and teachers accountable.
In health care, the controversial Senate Bill 562 was similarly fraudulent. Pitched it as a single-payer system that would incubate change across the nation, the bill failed to include the basics of such a system – like controls on costs or utilization of medical care, or ways to pay its $400 billion bill.
At its worst, California feels like a bubble of counterproductive regulations and laws. One recent example of bubble-making excess involves our new attorney general, Xavier Becerra.
Becerra, despite his valiant efforts protecting us from the Trump administration, is responsible for the most foolish bubble-expanding policy of the year: expanding enforcement of a California law banning paid travel by state employees to states that have discriminatory laws on the books. Becerra has now listed eight states (Texas was among the recent adds) under this travel ban. Opposing discrimination is the state goal, but how are Californians to spread our ideas and inclusive cultural values to such places if government representatives can’t visit them?
It’s hard work being an incubator. You have to address not only your own problems, but also other people’s. But what’s the point of a place as rich and lucky as California if it’s only going to be for itself? Incubators birth new things. Bubbles tend to pop.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.