Coronavirus is forcing Californians into isolation. But it has brought us together in one way: by fusing our biggest problems into one colossal crisis.
That crisis could be our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the state—if we can ignore the conventional wisdom that this is a time to shelter our ambitions in place.
For Californians, COVID-19 is a crisis of crises, merging failures that we usually consider separately—housing, energy, poverty, prisons, courts, schools, climate, healthcare, pensions, taxes and budgets, and governance. COVID exposes how these disparate crises are rooted in the same flaw: California’s inability to invest in the future.
The Golden State loves making big progressive promises, but resists the hard work of delivering on them. In healthcare, COVID reminds us that the state has massively expanded health insurance without producing enough personnel and facilities to provide timely, effective healthcare. In housing, the same California leaders who require us to stay home preside over a massive housing shortage. Our elected officials pose as champions of the poor and children, even as COVID-19 worsens our high childhood poverty rate and forces the closure of schools, which fail to close achievement gaps in good times and now have switched to ill-considered online learning models that leave poor students behind.
COVID exposes our failures in workforce—from our lack of skilled laboratory technicians, to our lack of healthy farmworkers. And when warmer temperatures bring wildfires during the pandemic, massive power shut-offs could cripple our efforts to work from home. COVID also threatens a deal PG&E made with previous wildfire victims (because the deal was based on PG&E now-faltering stock). The failure of that deal could lead to massive utility layoffs and damage California’s climate change response, which depend on utility investments in alternative energies.
All of the above crises were nearly impossible to solve because of the state’s weak systems for budgeting, taxation, and pensions. Now COVID-19 puts those systems under unbearable pressures. As COVID creates the need for more government outlays, our byzantine budget formulas will produce spending cuts. And the stock market crashes could collapse our badly underfunded pension systems— requiring a bailout we couldn’t afford even before COVID.
As bad as all this sounds, another thing is even worse: the timid response that California is now planning to this mega-crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom has junked his ambitious January budget proposal and now plans a “shelter-in-place” budget. Such an approach reflects the tired Sacramento conventional wisdom that the wise path in a California crisis is to scale back and limit the damage.
That conventional wisdom is—to use a technocratic term—totally nutso.
Cutbacks now will worsen all our existing problems and crises, and make recovery from COVID that much harder. We know this because that’s what happened in the Great Recession, when big budget cuts created lasting some of today’s crises in housing and infrastructure.
Previous failures of the cower-and-cut strategy argue powerfully for a new approach: This is the time for California to ramp up spending like never before, and tackle all the crises that COVID exposes.
The timing is right. The state of emergency gives Gov. Newsom extraordinary legal and political flexibility. And the housing, infrastructure or school programs that seem impossible expensive in boom times are suddenly more affordable now.
So let’s do it all. Make the temporary COVID expansion of health care capacity and homeless housing permanent. Sweep away the regulations that limit housing construction and business growth. And increase school budgets by 50 percent, as multiple studies have suggested California should do, to close achievements gaps.
If California did all this, we’d actually be the national progressive model we’ve long pretended to be.
How do you pay for such transformations? In every way possible. Reform the outdated tax system to produce higher revenues and less volatility. Eliminate budget formulas to make it easier to move money around. And, yes, cancel unsustainable pension promises and unfunded retiree health benefits for public workers.
Even higher taxes and retirement clawbacks won’t be enough, of course. Californians will need more from the federal government. And we should get over our debt hang-ups and borrow big sums at today’s low rates. When those bills come due, California would be much stronger in economy and infrastructure and services, and thus better able to reckon with those debts.
What I’m proposing is a big bet on California’s future. But it’s hardly reckless. Buying low is a proven investment strategy. It’s also the right response to the extraordinary moment we’re living in. Californians have put their lives on hold; millions of us are losing jobs and income, and thousands are dying. Is it right to respond to these sacrifices by deepening existing crises, and diminishing our future?
Instead, Let’s put the state on a higher plane. Let’s go all in, California. Right now.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.