California’s Roaring 2020s

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

January 1, 2030

To my three sons:

I’m so proud of you. I especially appreciate that, now that you’re 21, 18, and 16 years old, you no longer fight with each other constantly like you did when you were little. You’re all doing well in school, and have bright futures ahead.

But please never forget how lucky you’ve been to come of age in California during this now-concluding decade, the Roaring 2020s. Our state is doing so well that it’s hard to remember how fraught things seemed 10 years ago. 

Back then, California faced a dire housing shortage and had one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. Digital technology was causing massive disruption. Mega-fires were destroying homes and killing people. And the federal government was undermining our desperate efforts to reckon with these problems.

“It’s the End of California As We Know It,” declared a New York Times column in 2019.

Worse still, neither governments nor businesses had the tools to deal with problems that seemed too big and overwhelming.  Amidst these feelings of hopelessness we fell even deeper into a bad habit. We started declaring that we would solve certain problems by a set year—without having real plans to do it. 

As a target year, 2030 came up again and again. State politicians talked constantly about the need to reduce emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. But those goals weren’t accompanied by realistic plans to achieve the requisite remissions reductions—especially in the face of increasing emissions from transportation and wildfires.

2030 fantasies went much further than climate, though. In 2018, the state Department of Education declared a goal under “Global California 2030” of making half of all K-12 students proficient in two or more languages. But no one provided the funding for the  immersion programs and foreign language teachers necessary to make it happen. 

In retrospect, too many of our 2030 goals were too small and underfunded—like the state’s plans to build up long-term care and other services for seniors when the population of people over 65 doubled between 2015 and 2030. Or the University of California’s underwhelming “UC 2030,” which outlined the modest goal of increasing graduation rates a few points.  

Since the three of you were so young at that time, you may not remember the two early 2020s calamities that shook California out of its stupor.

First, the 2019 housing crisis got dramatically worse. The state kept making new demands for housing, but local governments, kept opposing new construction. In January 2021, thousands of homeless Californians, desperate for shelter and action, stormed the Capitol, kicked out all the legislators—and made the building their home for the next year.

At the same time, a nasty national recession hit, sparked a federal debt default. In a 2021 poll, half of Californians feared they could become homeless. 

That drove the Golden State to radical action. 

During 2008’s Great Recession, California had considered replacing its old constitution, which made governing in crisis impossible, with a new system. But elites instead decided to make budget cuts and suffer through the pain of unemployment and foreclosures. But by 2021 it was clear that the governing system needed to change to give people and leaders the agency to deal with our problems. 

Looking back, the biggest driver of California change wasn’t self-driving cars or cheaper space rockets but the new constitution, drafted in early 2022 and approved by voters later that year. Crucially, this constitution took powers away from state government, thus creating more freedom for regions and local communities to govern themselves. 

The effect was startling, rapid, and deep. The state’s regions were able to accelerate housing, remake transportation systems, take back control of crucial utilities, and ramp up economic development on their own. In one constitutional moment, so many pent-up ambitions were unleashed that the entire state seemed to roar with new innovation. 

In retrospect, we should have been able to see more of the potential within ourselves. Back in 2019, I traveled the state as a columnist and often marveled that, for all the state’s structural problems, our local communities still made progress, from the innovative development of West Sacramento to the fiscal reforms of Glendale. Even in the despair of 2020, Fresno was remaking itself into our next great city, and L.A. was so boldly rebuilding its transit system that city governments in Boston and New York took notice.

Now, if I had written a letter like this to you in January 2020, it would have been dismissed as a fairy tale. People’s moods were just too dark  back then.

But, looking back, the biggest lesson is clear: deep within our hearts and communities, Californians carry possibilities so grand that the future may happily surprise us.

Love,

Dad

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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