California, the media like to tell us, faces an unprecedented fiscal crisis. The budget deficit is $40 billion and growing. The state is so short of cash that, within days, it may issue IOUs, rather than checks, to pay its bills. The Legislature, bitterly divided, seems unable to agree on a way out. The governor warns of “financial Armageddon.”

How should we prepare for apocalypse?

Before you hide under your bed, check out a few books by some of California’s leading journalistic interpreters of the last 160 years.

You probably won’t have to read very long before you’re reminded that big deficits and threats of fiscal crisis aren’t exactly new here. In fact, the notion of California as a place where current resources don’t meet present needs is at least as old as the Donner Party. And the state’s leaders have always been — in the eyes of journalists — fools and knaves, unable to resolve persistent financial problems.

“The scoundrels are in power, and they have wrecked the country,” Hinton Helper wrote, after having spent three years reporting on the state, in his 1855 book “The Land of Gold,” an early anti-California screed. “Today the State is lawless, penniless and powerless.”

In California, it seems, Armageddon is always right around the corner.

As to why this is, nothing offers a better explanation than Carey McWilliams’ 1949 classic, “California: The Great Exception.” Sixty years after publication, it reads as though McWilliams, who died in 1980, turned in the manuscript last week.

“The state is always off balance, stretching itself precariously,” McWilliams wrote. California, governmentally speaking, is “a giant adolescent” with a “notorious lack of social and political equilibrium.”

As evidence, McWilliams listed the financial troubles — he used the word “crisis” — that faced California in his time. The schools lacked good teachers, proper resources and materials (particularly in the gigantic Los Angeles district). Health facilities couldn’t keep up with rising medical costs. The state’s roads and waterworks were outdated and decaying. The prison system was criminally overcrowded. All these deficits persisted, McWilliams lamented, despite big increases in state spending during a postwar boom.

“Even at the limping pace at which facilities have been expanded, and they have never kept abreast of current needs, governmental costs have skyrocketed,” he wrote.
The list of major problems facing the state today, of course, is nearly identical.

This would not have surprised McWilliams. A lawyer and journalist who moved to New York in the 1950s to become editor of the Nation, he knew California and its government outside and in. Culbert Olson, the state’s only Democratic governor in the first half of the 20th century, appointed McWilliams head of California’s division of immigrants and housing in 1939. He advocated so aggressively for the rights of migrant workers that growers labeled him the state’s No. 1 “agricultural pest.”

Experience taught McWilliams that for all the apocalyptic rhetoric in the “short memoried press” (“There has always been something about [California] that has incited hyperbole,” he wrote), the state’s persistent fiscal shortfalls were part of its character — a direct consequence of the size, diversity and dynamism that made California great.

McWilliams blamed the Gold Rush for shaping California in this way. Too many people had come too quickly for the state to constitute itself in anything approaching a normal manner. By the early 1870s, California was such a financial and political mess that the entire constitution had to be thrown out. California is “a community of irresponsible strangers,” wrote Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce in his 1886 book, “California: A Study of American Character.” The fortune seekers who moved here in search of gold lived and governed by a philosophy of “something for nothing.” Miners took $100 million in treasure out of the ground without paying taxes on it.

“From that time to the present, governmental services have lagged far behind population growth,” McWilliams wrote. “Other states have gone through this phase too, but California has never emerged from it.”

Put simply, the state simply grows too fast for its government to keep up. No governing system — and certainly no mere politician — can manage constant revolution.

And so, a liberal giant, Gov. Pat Brown, taxed and spent. His successor, the conservative hero Ronald Reagan, inherited Brown’s deficit and taxed and spent even more. Every generation of California interpreter, before or after McWilliams, has observed this dynamic. In her 2003 book, “Where I Was From,” Joan Didion noted, “There had been then from the beginning, these obliterating increases, rates of growth that systematically erased freshly laid traces of custom and community.”

Didion argued that Californians made this worse by sending conflicting signals to politicians. McWilliams saw this too. Voters, he wrote, “want the state to grow, and yet they don’t want it to grow. They like the idea of growth and expansion, but withdraw from the practical implications. This ambivalence is so acute that it often results in paralysis, a suspension of the thinking faculty, a form of civic hypnosis.”

He added: “This astonishing ambivalence, so amusing to watch, consistently undercuts any attempt to plan for the well-being of Californians, present and future.”

What of solutions to these problems? In “The Great Exception,” McWilliams offered little more than skepticism about the whole concept of “reform.” For him and other California interpreters, reformers’ efforts to scrub politics of politicians and money and interest groups usually backfired. The state’s bureaucracy, its boards and commissions, even its initiative process, all were meant to reduce the influence of interest groups, yet all were captured by the same.

In his bestselling 1931 autobiography, Lincoln Steffens suggested that reformers opt for a strategic surrender: Cut out the middlemen (the politicians), and let the bad guys — the lobbyists and wealthy influence buyers — hold office themselves. “Being responsible and being not honest but intelligent, they will not do half the things they ask their good, honest, usually unintelligent dummies to do,” Steffens wrote. “They would give better government than righteous men.”

McWilliams wasn’t that cynical, but he did warn that California, with its penchant for perpetual crisis, had a bad habit of adopting “perilous remedies for present evils.” He would have been wary of the reforms under discussion during this year’s budget Armageddon.

Republicans want a limit on state spending. Democrats are pushing for top-to-bottom reform of the state’s tax structure to produce more revenues. But to be successful, a spending limit or tax reform would need accurate projections of the state’s future, and in California projections almost always miss the mark.

“No calculus exists by which needs can be fully anticipated in California,” McWilliams wrote. “Other communities can project a population curve, and, with fair accuracy, anticipate needs twenty and thirty years in advance; but it would be a brave man, indeed, who would undertake to chart California’s growth for the next decade. There are too many unpredictable factors; too many variable elements.”

That passage begs the question that’s been posed recently by media analysts, and even by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in this month’s state of the state address: Is California still governable? Reading McWilliams suggests the proper answer is another question: When was California ever governable?

In such a state, the best we can hope for is that our elected officials possess humility, caution and long memories. It might be a good idea if those in charge today would read McWilliams — if only to be reminded that the best anyone ever does is to make sure government doesn’t fall too far behind its citizens.

We citizens also should remember that California’s advantages are not fundamentally financial. In 1868, Henry George, then a San Francisco newspaperman, published an essay on the original economic stimulus plan, the transcontinental railroad. Growth and prosperity were coming, he acknowledged, but they would not cure California of all that ailed it. The economic boost from the railroad might make hard times even harder and add to the perils of being short of cash, of being “broken.”

“But,” George added, “there never was a better country to be ‘broken’ in” than California.