Democracy in Suburbia

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

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 Booksdebunked 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.

Meanwhile, residents of cities such as San Francisco actively beat back attempts to promote non-sprawling growth.

Earlier this month, wealthy owners of 1950s tract houses on the city's western shore pressured Mayor Gavin Newsom's planning director to eliminate language in the city's general plan that would have encouraged higher housing density and reduced parking spaces along transit corridors -- language that professional planners believe is crucial to providing enough housing for the region.

Ironically, a couple of days before the planning director gutted the city's housing requirements, the mayor announced he would fill the post of city housing czar with Matt Franklin, California's director of Housing and Community Development, the same agency that implements state law requiring cities to build sufficient housing. Franklin now has to turn San Francisco's mixed messages on housing into some kind of policy.

"I always assumed Franklin would not allow local jurisdictions to play games with the housing element law, and make local jurisdictions deal with their NIMBYism," Dunn said.

Dunn's thinking may be too hopeful, as other lonely struggles in California politics will illustrate.

When electricity industry groups spent more than $17 million on campaign spending and lobbying expenses, then packed a room to help draft a disastrous energy restructuring bill, the result was a $25 billion debacle. Californians were supposed to have learned their lesson; they kicked out campaign-cash-grubbing Gray Davis and elected a rich movie star who said he wouldn't need corporate funds. But the fact is, such corporate donors as Wal- Mart, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Hansel Phelps Construction underwrite Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sacramento home at the downtown Hyatt Regency. His can-do policy coups -- stripping down workmen's compensation, fobbing off state debt to future taxpayers, and pushing through a cash-strapped budget without raising taxes -- represent the fulfillment of corporate-donor priorities.

And even small campaign finance reforms face a tough road. A bill backed by Common Cause that would publicly fund campaigns for all state offices passed an Assembly committee last month but was recently "suspended" into legislative limbo.

Water districts all over the state have depleted sources for so long that figuring out ways to extract more water runs them up against the Endangered Species Act: Further extraction, diversion, and storage will kill off flora and fauna. The Bush administration and some members of Congress, including Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), see a solution: Revise federal law to make it easier to kill endangered species.

During the 1990s, the state and federal governments pursued a scheme by which California water systems would pull significantly more water out of the Sacramento River Delta while spending more money to improve the Delta ecosystem. After more than a year of public meetings, the proposals to extract more water stalled. The program still limps along like a farmer and environmentalist debate club. Economists have reportedly urged the governor to turn his attention to water, but so far he's barely mentioned the issue.

Meanwhile, experts agree that current supplies are insufficient to keep pace with the insatiable growth of California subdivisions. And the subdivisions themselves are a key to why California continues to ignore its most important policy imperatives.

There's a reason why Californians have collectively withdrawn so far from public problem-solving that critical problems seem hidden even from the scrutiny of the venerable Economist.

Rapid suburbanization is nothing new in California, and the phenomenon is not unique to this state. But the pace of sprawl has been so fast here, and the sprawling process has continued for so long, that we've become pioneers of a new type of civic culture, one that has little interest in public life beyond the confines of a local neighborhood. The developed areas created during the past half-century of California growth don't bear much relation to a previous understanding of cities and their collective public concerns.

Look east from San Francisco at Contra Costa County, an area with a population of a million people but without a single amenity one might associate with a population that size. There is no major university, symphony, sports team, important museum, economic development strategy, or big-picture civic identity of any kind.

After a half-century of overpass-oriented growth, it's become increasingly true that there's actually no therein most of inhabited California. As the Economist hinted at in an excellent survey on American sprawl a few years ago, for every unique California place such as San Francisco's Union Square or Santa Barbara's State Street, there is a surrounding Rhode Island-sized patch of anonymous cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Ask a resident of Bay Area suburb Morgan Hill if she fancies herself in the same lot as a family in Bay Area suburb Suisun, 92 miles to the north, and you'll likely get a shrug.

These are communities in title only, quaintly retaining names of long-irrelevant downtowns. Their residents largely blinker out the rest of the world, see little in common with people in the rest of the state, and seem willing to tolerate any level of dysfunction in their distant state capital, car-alarm-magnate-financed recall drives notwithstanding.

I grew up in a procession of California towns, ending with seven years in Elk Grove, a south-of-Sacramento development billed during the late 1970s as America's fastest-growing town. At 20, I left for Mexico City, where I stayed on and off for 11 years. Each time I came back to California, I'd feel like a far less sophisticated de Tocqueville, astonished and perplexed by what I saw.

For one thing, conversations in California seemed strange. Elsewhere in the world it is common to strike up topical conversations with strangers at a bus stop, but I learned that here, only in certain venues does one talk about subjects outside one's immediate purview. I remember asking a woman at a party in 1987 what she thought about Douglas Ginsberg, who had withdrawn his U.S. Supreme Court nomination after being outed as a pot smoker. She looked at me blankly for a few beats, brightened, then offered what I came to comprehend as a bit of California logic: "Oh, I'm a Special Education major." In 1998, when the U.S. launched a heavy bombing campaign against Iraq, few people seemed interested in conversing about the fact America was at war: "Yeah, I guess we are, kind of," one co-worker offered.

Elk Grove, once a town I could cross by bicycle in 10 minutes, seemed to sextuple in area during my absence, and now stretches 20 miles across in all directions. The state Department of Finance recently announced that Elk Grove is again -- or perhaps still is -- the fastest-growing city in California. The Los Angeles Times reports proposed plans for building housing tracts over the deep, black, unstable loam of the Sacramento River Delta west of Interstate 5, which forms Elk Grove's current informal border. Last month, the California Supreme Court rejected an appeal to halt an enormous shopping mall and housing development on farmland south of town, ensuring that Elk Grove will remain notable for some time to come.

Perhaps mindful of this, Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this month chose Elk Grove as the location from which to announce that he'd cut a deal with cities and counties to reduce their budgets by $2.6 billion. Elk Grove city services would take an estimated $1.5 million share of the hit. Nobody present seemed perturbed.

City officials ordered an ambulance and fire engine to be placed beside the governor's podium, in front of the seven television cameras. City employees briefly let off work created a photo-op crowd. The Beatles "Come Together" played on a temporary sound system. And councilman Jim Cooper told a reporter for the Sacramento Bee's community news section that "The governor chose Elk Grove for a reason. Elk grove is a model city."

Indeed. It is the model of Californians' blithe inattention to perennial budget crises, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, gridlocked transportation, a degraded environment, dwindling water supplies, and unavailable housing. The Elk Grove ceremony for the governor perfectly represented a state whose public discussion avoids subjects that really matter, and for whom the Economist's question, "Is California Back?," makes little sense, given how few of us seem to notice we've been gone.

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