“Science,” wrote the University of California’s first President Daniel Coit Gilman, “is the mother of California.” In making this assertion, Gilman was referring mostly to finding ways to overcoming the state’s “peculiar geographical position” so that the state could develop its “undeveloped resources.”
Nowhere was this more true than in the case of water. Except for the far north and the Sierra, California – and that includes San Francisco as well as greater Los Angeles – is essentially a semiarid desert. The soil and the climate might be ideal, but without water, California is just a lot of sunny potential, but not much economic value.
Yet, previous generations of Californians, following Gilman’s instructions, used technology to build new waterworks, from the Hetch Hetchy Dam to the L.A. Aqueduct and, finally, the California State Water Project and its federal counterpart, the Central Valley Project. These turned California into the richest farming area on the planet and generated opportunities for the tens of millions who came to live in the state’s cities and suburbs.
Today, California operates on very different assumptions. If growth was valued under the regimes that existed in the 100 years after Gilman, it began to lose its allure in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of this was understandable; much of the state had developed haphazardly, and, particularly in the urban areas, not enough open space was left behind. The greens thrived most here because so many had witnessed the dramatic transformation of so much of the state.
The central figures in this transformation are the Browns. The father Pat was a builder by proclivity, and he made sure Californians not only had lots of water, but excellent roads and a great education system from grade schools and community colleges to the University of California. Brown epitomized California’s opportunity era, with its many excesses but also remarkable social mobility, less poverty and more equality than what we see today.
Jerry Brown, his son, was much the opposite. As his adviser Tom Quinn explained to me 30 years ago, Brown’s politics were informed by an abhorrence of what he called his father’s “build, build, build thing.” Brown Jr., he added, was not just rejecting his father, but a long line of Democrats – from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey – who saw the party’s mission as creating wealth and opportunity for their middle- and working-class constituents.
Brown’s approach, in contrast, has been to embrace the notion of “an era of limits,” sometimes for good cause: On nonproductive, runaway government spending, for example. But the lack of investment in infrastructure – as opposed to social services, pensions and salaries – caused disastrous results, of which the current severity of the drought is just one example.
Part of this is world-view. Although generally scientists reject the claim that the drought stems from climate change, Brown and his amen crew, such as at the New York Times, swear that it’s a big part of the story.
This narrative helps explain why the state, under increasingly strong environmentalist influence, has chosen to refrain from taking steps to mitigate the drought. If it’s part of a general revolt of “gaia,” after all, why bother? Better to don a hair shirt and shrink the consuming base than prepare to meet future demands.
Brown’s distaste for adding storage space – a sentiment shared by his core green backers – goes back to his first two terms. Recently, he seems to have wised up on the need to deal with water infrastructure, but he has been careful not to offend his green allies. He has not called for an end to the unconscionable mass diversion of water to San Francisco Bay to restore ancient salmon runs and to save the Delta smelt. This inaction has helped make the current drought – which recalls at least two others I have experienced over the past 40 years – far worse than it need be.
But Brown’s water policies are only part of broader systemic problem in the political economy. The state’s politics are now dominated by a coalition of environmentalists, wealthy coastal residents and public employees who have little interest in broad-based growth, particularly in the state’s interior. This is reflected not just in water polices, but in such areas as basic transportation infrastructure. During the recession, for example, California cut transportation spending far more than states like Texas. A recent study from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and a nonprofit group found that California was home to eight of the 20 urban areas with the worst roads in the nation.
Brown’s disdain for infrastructure spending has survived the bad times and continues with the current budget. Similar trends are seen across the state, including even in opposition to building capacity at the ports – leading to a gradual erosion of our dominant market share to competitors, particularly in the Southeast. Some cities invest in expensive rail development but fail to keep up with the more cost-efficient bus service.
Similarly, a commitment to Draconian “renewable energy” goals has helped line the pockets of Silicon Valley investors and utilities at the expense of manufacturers, Main Street businesses and households. And when it comes to new housing, the green regime has created conditions that make the purchase or rental of housing outrageously expensive.
In the process, California has gone from the 25th-worst state in terms of inequality in 1970 to fourth-worst in 2013. Sure, Silicon Valley companies, flush with investment cash desperate for returns, do well, as does high-end real estate. But the historic constituents of the Democrats – minorities, the poor, the working class – have gotten only crumbs, effectively sold out by their own clueless, and often corrupt, political class.
So in the Oedipal conflict between the Browns, it’s not hard to see whose legacy we should seek to emulate. Pat Brown left behind roads, schools and, most critically, a water system, all of which we still depend on. Jerry Brown has promoted his reputation as a climate crusader and architect of the collapse of the Republican Party. His legacy is tied to his high-speed choo-choo, even though many not profiting from the gravy train don’t think it’s a good idea. Indeed, many progressives, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drumm, consider the whole thing “ridiculous,” a massive boondoggle.
But unlike some of my conservative friends, I don’t think all the blame belongs to Brown and his Democratic allies. California business did not push hard for new state investment when GOP governors ran the state. In some cases, Republicans also turned against their own traditional support of infrastructure building, embracing an infantile notion that low taxes alone would solve all problems.
California’s mess has many progenitors outside the green machine. Big agriculture, which consumes upward of 80 percent of our water, has not exactly covered itself with glory, resisting ground water controls as they unconscionably pump critically depleted state aquifers to historically low levels. And some growers insist on planting crops like rice, alfalfa and cotton that are more suited to the wet southeast than arid California. Some cities did not meter their own water uses, encouraging waste even as the drought mounted.
So what do we do now? How about not using state law to say “no” to everything and start saying “yes” to the things most Californians need. The Right needs to get beyond its 1978 Howard Jarvis moment. The greens should clamber down from their mountaintop and start embracing a combination of solutions that includes not only conservation but more reservoirs and more desalination. Business has to accept fewer subsidies and a more intelligent selection of crops to adjust to the new reality. The public needs to accept that our houses need to have landscaping that looks more like Tucson than England.
But it’s more than just water. We also need to start saying yes to those things – natural gas electrical generation, new housing, better roads and buses – that actually would improve the lives of Californians. Caught between the clueless Republicans and the ecotopian fantasies of the Left, Californians need to reject both, and demand something better for this state.
Cross-posted at New Geography.