My fellow Californians, the state of our state is nuttier than ever.
I know you will hear more conventional assessments of how our state is faring from elected officials in the coming weeks. And to be clear, I am not judging the sanity of Californians. (We have lower rates of mental illness than the U.S.) Nor am I referring merely to the startling growth in almond production.
I offer my assessment of our essential nuttiness as a starting point for a year in which we will debate and cast votes on our taxes, drug laws, schools, roads, rails and water. As we figure things out, let us not lean too heavily on reason, or appeal too often to common sense. After all, this state – with its peculiar history of rapid change – has never been a particularly reasonable or sensible place.
So when things make no sense in the coming year, take comfort in the words of the writer Edward Abbey: “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”
We have been so singular for so long that California has become obsessed with singularity – and even afraid of “the singularity,” the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually surpass our own, dooming humanity. When Gov. Jerry Brown gives his own State of the State address, there likely will be a predictable list of California singular-status boasts – a leader in renewable energy, high-speed rail, protecting undocumented immigrants and fighting climate change.
Such policies are to be celebrated. They also are the fruits of our perceived nuttiness. Other states have rejected high-speed rail and cap-and-trade for greenhouse gas emissions as irretrievably wacky ideas.
You won’t hear this month’s official speechmakers talk about how our nuttiness can turn on itself. Ours is a state of creative communities and people that is ruled from Sacramento via the most centralized regime of regulation and taxation in the United States.
California has the highest percentage of its population living in poverty of any state in the country, and yet our leaders pursue policies that give us some of America’s most expensive electricity, gas and housing. We embrace freedom and restrict it in the same breath. Californians are on our way to legalizing marijuana – but good luck finding a place in the state where you can smoke it, or anything else. The state is pioneering self-driving cars, even as we let our roads deteriorate into impassable messes.
We’ve led the way in expanding health insurance for poor people – half of our children are now on Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid – but at the same time, we’ve made it harder for people to get treatment. California desperately needs more college graduates. So naturally, we underfund public higher education and limit college enrollment.
We Californians have a nutty weakness for empty and extravagant promises. We spend years on Elon Musk’s waiting lists for Teslas he can’t seem to deliver. Our governments are going to provide billions in retiree health care even in an age when Medicare and Obamacare should cover all. And from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, we invest billions in the trivial. How many photo-sharing apps and superhero movies does one state need?
I could go on – take note that I’ve gone this far in a column about California nuttiness without once mentioning San Francisco – but what’s the point? While our nuttiness has its costs, California will cope, as we always do, by celebrating how crazily creative we are.
As Compton’s Kendrick Lamar will rap when he wins big at this year’s Grammys, “We gon’ be alright.”
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.