In today’s California, we set big, ambitious goals for improving energy efficiency, fighting climate change and, well, not much else.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s inaugural address this month was a case in point. The governor again expressed his famous skepticism of big plans and big spending – then made an exception for energy and climate change, proposing three ambitious goals for the next 15 years: to derive 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources; to reduce petroleum use in cars and trucks by half; and to double the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
These goals are important, and build on decades of similar policies. But why is our vision so feeble when it comes to other priorities?
Part of it has to do with the special appeal of climate change. An existential threat to the planet requires big responses. Climate change is also a relatively novel issue, offering politicians and other interest groups plenty of room to maneuver.
On other major issues, however, California’s governance system has produced so many special rules and funding limitations that our leaders are too constrained to make much change.
While our collective failure to think big is understandable, it isn’t excusable. California has profound shortcomings in a host of areas, and setting big, clear public goals would be an essential first step to making progress on them. And it isn’t as if Californians are unaccustomed to thinking big when they can. The Bay Area is full of companies that routinely make business plans for exponential growth and world domination – and sometimes make good on them.
What would such big goals look like in the public sphere?
Instead of today’s narrow debate over whether the state or students should pay more to preserve the status quo in higher education, why not set a big goal to produce millions more college graduates to spur growth and revitalize inland regions, where 20 percent or less of adults are college educated?
Or how about we make a commitment that California will have a higher percentage of college graduates than any state by 2033, when children born today will go to college, and that every region should have 50 percent of its population graduate from college?
Setting these goals would create much bigger thinking. Can we double the size of Fresno State and University of California, Riverside? What level of online education would be necessary to educate that many people? And what kind of government support, private philanthropy (maybe a public match of donations to California universities), and tuition would be required?
Other issues would benefit from the same approach. Why not set a goal to extend the school year from 180 to 210 days (the standard of many charter and private schools), and lengthen the school day to match the workday by the end of this decade?
In response to the big decline in voting, why not set a goal of making California the national leader in voter turnout by 2030? And instead of gnashing our teeth about California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate, why not dedicate ourselves to climbing out of the bottom half of states in poverty rankings within 20 years?
These big goals will strike many Californians as unrealistic. That reaction says more about our own thinking than it does about the worthiness of these goals. Without big goals, it’s easy to waste money and continue doing the same old things.
It’s frightening that the state is debating how and whether to increase taxes via ballot initiative next year without any big goals in place for how to spend the state’s money. Any new taxes are unlikely to alter the state’s trajectory.
Thinking big is also an essential defense mechanism. If we don’t have ambitious plans of our own, we’ll find ourselves at the mercy of self-interested people and their schemes. We’ve seen this again and again across the state. Some self-interested developer or “visionary” sports team owner comes in with a big plan. And Californians give away the store, because we want to do something big and don’t have any big plans of our own.
Joe Mathews is California and Innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.