Dear Washington, D.C.,
I know that your politicians will say anything to get elected and your wonks are perpetually grasping at straws. But I find it hard to believe how many people in your town are saying that I, the great state of California, am some sort of model for you and the country you govern.
Strangely, this recent D.C. swoon is not about my good looks. (I still look great, whether you’re gazing up at Half Dome or down the block at a sidewalk full of Southern Californians.) No, it’s about my less flattering side: governance. And still more peculiar is that the compliments headed my way are coming from people across your political spectrum.
Liberals say my social and environmental policies are an antidote to your economic gospels of cheap labor, immigration crackdowns, and deregulation. Conservatives have praised Governor Jerry Brown’s emphasis on frugality, balanced budgets, and debt reduction as a contrast to big-spending Democrats in your town. Democrats tout the virtues of California’s Democratic governor and big majorities in both houses of the legislature as a contrast to D.C.’s divided government. Congressional Republicans are pushing a plan to install California-style supermajorities to make it harder to raises taxes. And good government centrists point to recent political reforms here—like our new redistricting commission—that they say reduce gridlock.
From what I can see—and my view is obscured by the Sierra, which are awfully high—all this praise, while broad in its sources, is so contradictory that none of it can be taken seriously. And so I don’t.
If you live in California (or are California, as I am), you remember that just two years ago the state was ungovernable—and you know that not much has changed here in the last two years. Despite some improvements, our spending on key services remains relatively low, and our income and sales taxes remain high. Our inland counties still battle high poverty, and our coastal counties are still rich and innovative, albeit with a crushingly high cost of living. Our culture is open-minded, but we haven’t been able to think up ways to address our big problems in prisons, healthcare, underfunded higher education, and water.
In this context, I find myself puzzled not only by the idea of me as national model—but also by the fact that this praise is coming from Washington. Today, perhaps more than ever before, California must look to D.C. for answers and help.
Of course, the truth—a truth people here don’t often acknowledge, even to themselves—is that California has always been D.C.’s creature. You made possible the railroads and highways and airlines that allowed people to get here—and your failed policies stirred the Depression and Dust Bowl that encouraged people to relocate. You protected Yosemite and other scenic wonders. And you funded the defense and aerospace industries that were the bedrock of 20th-century California; even the Internet started out as a U.S. Department of Defense program. One could make a pretty good argument that I am a successful project of your military-industrial complex.
A generation after the Cold War, you still hold the purse strings that built me, and you’re still the only place that can print money. (Yes, it now appears that bitcoin may have been invented in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, but I can’t use it to buy a double double at In-N-Out.) California’s richest people are more interested in spending their billions on your politics than on ours. As local journalism has rapidly diminished in California, the media has remained ascendant in D.C.—meaning that you drive our narrative more than ever before.
California interests of every stripe have stepped up lobbying in D.C. This makes sense, since Washington is making decisions that will determine whether California’s two most high-profile projects—high-speed rail and the water tunnels under the Delta—become reality. The federal government has taken over our prisons, and Washington regulators are deciding how open the commercial Internet’s future will be. And if the Edward Snowden affair proves anything, it’s that the federal government can get all Americans’ communications—and there’s not much California companies Google, Apple, and Facebook can do about it.
So while you think you have your problems in the capital, you, Washington, D.C., have surpassed California in any number of ways. More people are moving to you while my population is stagnant. Your residents are much better educated, and make more money, than mine. Heck, the median value of a D.C. home is now $60,000 more than the median value of a California home. That’s a testament to your ingenuity, when you consider my great weather and the fact that D.C. is cold and unpleasant in the winter, muggy and unpleasant in the summer, and not all that comfortable in between.
Your politics may be deeply polarized and dominated by money—but so are California’s. And it’s surpassingly weird, to my ears, when your people say they can’t do big things. Because you’ve done so many big things in the past decade that I’m kind of envious: the bank bailout, the auto bailout, the stimulus, Obamacare, and a couple wars (after all, they’re big business). In California, we’re too hamstrung by our initiative politics and supermajorities to contemplate such giant moves.
Given how well you’re doing compared to the rest of the country, your biggest problem in D.C. may be your lack of perspective. Stop whining about how divided and frustrated you are. Stop talking up California as a supposed model of how things might be better. And start focusing your considerable resources and strengths on becoming a better model for us.
Originally published in Zocalo Public Square.