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Democracy in Suburbia 

The Economist asks: "Is California Back?" Contra Costa County wonders: "Were we gone?"

Wednesday, May 26 2004
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In Need of a Makeover: A Survey of California

By John Micklethwait

The Economist Newspaper Limited, 16 pages, reprints $4.50, 15-copy minimum

"Is California back?" The words, next to a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, shouted from a Mexico City airport magazine rack earlier this month. Awaiting a flight back to California, I grabbed the May 1 edition of the Economist, which contained 16 pages of fretting about the Golden State's future, and stood in line for my plane. I could hardly wait.

For those unfamiliar with it, the peculiar nature of the effete, glossy Economist -- a magazine so eccentric it prefers to be called a newspaper -- is perhaps best encapsulated in a line from the April 25 episode of The Simpsons (proudly cited in the aforementioned issue). In the episode, Homer Simpson, experiencing first-class air travel for the first time, exclaims, "Look at me! I'm reading the Economist. Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?"

The magazine carries outsized influence because world leaders, like sitcom writers, know it's perused in the first-class seats: When Harvard President Larry Summers traveled to Mexico a decade ago as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary, he declined to meet with reporters from The Associated Press and Dow Jones, instead feting the Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran.

The magazine is a mother lode of scooplets and sometimes-incisive analysis, offered in exchange for readers' indulgence of a relentless, unfettered-markets-or-die editorial doctrine. Dry British humor softens the proselytism: 48 pages after noting the Economist's mention on The Simpsons, the magazine headlined an article on Indonesia "At a Crossroads."

For its semimonthly "surveys" -- multi-part inquiries into varied subjects ranging from the current state of Swissness to the efficiency of Sub-Saharan bureaucrats -- the magazine kicks its game up a notch. Editors adopt the Alexis de Tocqueville notion that outsiders' eyes are freshest, and typically assign someone other than the local bureau correspondent to investigate and write the section. So it was that the magazine's U.S. editor John Micklethwait recently came to California, read the musings of screenwriter/novelist Joan Dideon, approvingly chatted with gadfly Ward Connerly, and tried fruitlessly to get an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Using Schwarzenegger's splashy governorship as a hook, Micklethwait approvingly visited our expanding suburbs, criticized California's haplessly inefficient government, bemoaned over-stiff business regulation, touted Silicon Valley's faint post-2000 rebound, gave a trademark Economist cheer for immigration, mourned the state of local education, and gave our new governor qualified praise. Micklethwait recommended improving schools. He correctly notes how the uneven taxation of 1978's Proposition 13 harms California in myriad ways. And, in sum, he basically missed the point of what's troubling California.

To echo historian Garry Wills (who in last month's issue of the New York Review of Books debunked Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830 study of American democracy), I don't believe Micklethwait "got" our state.

He writes at length about the ailment of California's wretched governance, while skipping mention of the infection behind it -- unchecked campaign finance abuses. He doesn't address in any meaningful way California's ongoing convulsions over water and the environment, the outcomes of which will decide whether and how the state can continue growing. He speeds past our gridlocked transportation system, skips California's developing-world level of population growth, and visits, yet merely winks at, the crippling economic, social, political, and environmental problems created by the state's unfettered urban sprawl.

The Economist, like other publications that have dog-piled to analyze our state, fails to recognize a counterintuitive reality in California: Gov. Schwarzenegger's office isn't where the important action is. In reality, the story of the supposedly can-do Schwarzenegger administration is the same trite action-adventure we watched during the Gray Davis and Pete Wilson years. Plot themes: Will the budget pass on time? Who will win the seat-of-the-pants struggles between interest groups? Can the governor patch over a growing budget deficit before the interest-group horse race to the public trough begins anew next year?

Meanwhile, the state's real, underlying problems are ignored by most, save the occasional, anonymous Don Quixote, tilting at monumental problems nobody seems to care about. Absent in the bulk of public discourse is fret about sprawl, or the need for more housing, better transportation, more intelligent energy use. Not to mention solutions to a system of public finance distorted by unchecked campaign contributions. These are problems seemingly invisible to most Californians, sidestepped by the legion of modern de Tocquevilles linking news analysis to our celebrity governor.


If madness is repeating the same action with a new result in mind, Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove) is crackers. For five years now he's drafted, introduced, lobbied, and failed to pass successive versions of legislation that would add teeth to largely ignored California law requiring cities to build enough housing for people wanting to live here.

"The reason I started this fight five years ago," Dunn says, "is that, left to their own devices, many jurisdictions through California simply will not build their fair share of housing to accommodate Californians. Whether it's NIMBYism, or a grand plan to have a city with a set number of residents, driven by racial issues or an economic issue like 'We don't want lower-income folks in our cities,' the end conclusion is the same: They play all sorts of games to avoid building housing in their jurisdiction to afford a fair opportunity for housing for Californians."

The refusal of California's cities and counties to permit sufficient new housing is one of those crucial problems that will define the state's future. Whether we build up existing communities or keep sprawling outward will determine our future rate of energy consumption and how well we can absorb immigrants, and it will dictate the long-term efficiency of our trains, freeways, and other transportation systems. It will determine the direction of housing prices and whether jobs will continue to grow here.

Yet year after year, Dunn's legislation has failed. A new bill that would create a statewide permit appeals panel with the power to overturn municipal decisions prohibiting new housing construction recently passed the state Senate. It will have a harder time in the Assembly, Dunn says. Arnold Schwarzenegger mouthed the term "smart growth" during his campaign for governor, which was interpreted as meaning he would support the type of urban infill California needs. He's said nothing of the sort since, Dunn says.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

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