California Is a Cautionary Tale for America

California bounds from one crisis to another; most of them being self-imposed.


During a business trip to Michigan in the 1980s, I recall driving on a commercial street that ran north to south through various well-kept working-class neighborhoods. At one point, the road passed a "Welcome to Detroit" sign. Immediately the surroundings became bleak, with boarded up buildings and graffiti. It was a disturbing sight.

That was nearly two decades before the rapper Eminem immortalized Detroit life in his movie, "8 Mile," which refers to the east-west thoroughfare that separates Detroit from its northern suburbs. "But yo, I gotta get out there, the only way I know," he sang. I kept driving until I got out of there, too. Within moments, the road exited the city limits and we were back amid tree-lined streets and tidy malls.

It may seem odd to begin a column about affluent California by telling stories about a grimy rust-belt metropolis, but extreme examples can reinforce a simple point. Just as national borders make a difference, so do state and municipal borders. Anyone with the means to flee Detroit, does so. Likewise, the Golden State hemorrhages residents, as they build their lives in differently managed states.

In a series of tweets, Donald Trump has depicted California as a "cautionary tale" for the rest of the United States, as CalMatters recently noted. As is often the case with this president, his ideas are a mixed bag and his incendiary approach is less than constructive. But, as someone who has been writing about California's policies for two decades, I concede that he makes a valid point.

California bounds from one crisis to another, with most of them being self-imposed. The latest one involves the raging wildfires that turned our air into a putrid soup. Obviously, heat waves and high winds were the proximate cause, but poor land management, ill-conceived liability and insurance laws, and the misuse of existing firefighting budgets are the fundamental problems.

The last crisis involved homelessness. Just because COVID-19 pushed it off of the front pages doesn't mean that it's become any less severe. "Gavin N has done a really bad job on taking care of the homeless population in California," Trump tweeted last year. "If he can't fix the problem the Federal Govt. will get involved." The president and his supporters have depicted San Francisco, with its festering homeless issue, as a dystopia.

Trump is right that our state, which thinks that building $700,000 per unit housing for the homeless is a good idea, has done its usual terrible job. As a believer in federalism, I disagree with giving federal bureaucrats a bigger role in a state problem. I visit San Francisco regularly and it remains one of the world's great cities despite the encampments and defecation. But it's on a downward trajectory.

When cost of living is included in the calculation, California has the highest poverty rates in the nation. Its obscene housing costs, which are the direct result of poor policy choices, is the reason so many Californians struggle. Instead of reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), slicing developer fees and eliminating urban-growth boundaries, the state is committed to more "affordable" housing subsidies.

The governor and his party always view the private sector as a threat and the government as a solution. Yet everything our government touches turns into disaster. The government controls road and freeway construction, yet our roads are clogged, as state officials impose "road diets" that eliminate traffic lanes and focus on bicycle paths. They continue to squander billions of dollars on the High Speed Rail line to nowhere. California's public-sector pay deals are eye popping. Localities continually cut services so they can pay higher fees to the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

California schools used to be tops, but—despite significant growth in their budgets—have stagnant test scores. The state's educational bright spot has been its charter schools, which provide needed competition to traditional monopoly schools. Yet after Gov. Jerry Brown, a charter supporter, left office, the new crowd has passed teachers'-union-backed laws that restrict their growth and force poor kids to stay in rotten districts.

California isn't the only state with problems, but most of them are the result of government inefficiency and malfeasance. California just happens to have the biggest state government—and it's run almost entirely by lawmakers and other officials who refuse to consider non-government approaches. Their solutions are the same as ever: Just raise taxes on the "rich."

Nevertheless, California's leaders brag that our state is the fifth-largest economy and that other states should emulate its model—from banning internal-combustion vehicles to limiting companies' ability to use contractors as workers. I look at the state's failures and crises and have to agree that California is more of a cautionary tale than a model. It's certainly not Detroit, but don't forget that 60 years ago Detroit was one of the nation's great cities.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.