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Democracy in Suburbia 

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

Wednesday, May 26 2004
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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