Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Gavin Newsom ponders the reality of California’s hypothetical future

Asked about the future of higher education, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom questioned whether spending money to add campus buildings and parking lots really makes sense when the next generation of students might end up studying online.
Asked about the future of higher education, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom questioned whether spending money to add campus buildings and parking lots really makes sense when the next generation of students might end up studying online. hamezcua@sacbee.com

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think of Gavin Newsom, the man who would very much like to be California’s next governor.

Like everyone else, I know the stereotypes. About his hair. About his looks. About his affinity for bros in Silicon Valley. About him being “close friends” with retired Seahawk Marshawn Lynch. (OK, in all fairness, I just learned that last one.)

This is all superficial stuff, though.

But maybe it’s because I’ve only lived in California for a matter of months – and because my last home was in a state so stuck in the past that its leaders recently considered a bill to fine transgender people for using the “wrong” bathroom – I think the lieutenant governor has some important things to say about the future. Some things that we all need to hear.

The gist of it is this: “You have a crisis right now of a world that’s dramatically changing. We’re going from one economy to a new economy,” he told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board. “This is a hinge moment.”

Looking at what has been happening, it’s hard to argue with him.

There’s Uber and Lyft, the smartphone-based ridesharing companies that have so upended the business model of taxi and limo companies that, even with regulatory relief, it’s unclear if the industries will ever be the same. Assuming, that is, they survive.

There’s also the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which on Thursday, said it will have a line up and running from Madera to downtown San Jose within 10 years – cutting the commute time by more than half and, therefore, permanently expanding the pool of candidates for Bay Area jobs and eliminating the need to fight for space in the region’s high-demand housing market.

And that’s to say nothing of driverless cars, innovation in clean energy, the inevitable march toward online education and the rapid advances in robotics. Like them or not, use them or not, these inventions all have the ability to reshape the way the state’s and the nation’s economy operates.

“Maybe it’s because of the conversations I’ve been having with business leaders,” Newsom said. “The more time I spend with these folks, I mean, it’s alarming these timelines.”

Yet we have a divided economy in California, with unemployment in the Central Valley about twice as high as the rest of the state.

You could argue that the technology developed along the coast has nothing to do with this part of the state. All of the state is not Silicon Valley, after all. Or you could argue, as Newsom does, that tech has everything to do with the Central Valley. That the region has been “crushed by it.”

So imagine if California could think far enough ahead to predict the next wave of technology, and imagine its ripple effects on the way people live and work. And then, imagine if California could adjust to proactively capitalize on those ripple effects. Maybe we wouldn’t have a Central Valley economy that’s so crushed.

“Old solutions, old tool kits, old answers just aren’t good enough. Something new needs to take place,” Newsom said. “I just don’t know what it is, but it’s bigger than some of the debates we’re having.”

So what do we do about this “hinge moment”? The question hasn’t even occurred to most people in politics, particularly outside of California. And it should.

And I’m not saying Newsom has all the answers or that I even like the answers he has. But it’s good that someone with the ability to influence public policy is at least asking the right questions.

For example, the editorial board asked him about the future of higher education. His response: To question whether spending money to add campus buildings and parking lots really makes sense when the next generation of students might end up studying online.

He added: “A degree is no longer a proxy for a job.”

Coincidentally (or maybe not), that’s exactly what I heard Bay Area entrepreneur Henrik Scheel declare at TEDxSacramento a few days later. He explained to an understanding crowd that it used to take an entire career for the skills learned in college to become obsolete. Now, change is happening so fast that by the time today’s college freshmen graduate, their skills could be obsolete.

I think Scheel would agree with Newsom when he waxed philosophical that too often we don’t ask the question: “What is the fundamental purpose of higher education?”

The editorial board also asked Newsom about infrastructure, which he calls the “ultimate stimulus” and says he’s “a fanatic” about the jobs such projects create. But then he started to speculate about the kinds of jobs that will truly exist in the years to come. Will we have a part-time economy? A sharing economy?

“The next governor has the obligation to answer (the question), what is the future of work? Not just in this country, but in this state.”

Newsom might not be the right person to be the next governor of California. But it’s great to have someone in elected office who thinks about these things. I mean, really thinks about these things to the point of potentially shaping public policy around them.

“We are living in a world where we’re about to have suborbital flights. I was in an Audi going 108 mph the other day. One hundred and eight. Without a driver, in the parking lot at Google,” he said. “This is not science fiction. This is reality. The world is radically changing and that has to be considered.”

Join the conversation

How can all of California, but particularly the Central Valley, proactively build on the innovation happening in Silicon Valley to improve the economy?

To write a letter to the editor, go to sacbee.com/submit-letter

Or go to our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacbeeeditboard

  Comments