Politics & Policy

Jerry Brown, a Modern Sisyphus

The new governor must change his state’s philosophy.

California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, must rapidly close a $25 billion budgetary shortfall. Right now it seems almost a hopeless task, since the state’s disastrous budget is merely a symptom, not the cause, of California’s much larger problems.

Take unemployment. It currently runs at 12.6 percent in California, the second-highest in the nation. Take livability. A recent Forbes magazine survey listing the 20 most miserable cities in the nation ranked four California municipalities in the top five.

Take education. California public schools test near rock bottom in national math and science scores. Take the business climate. A recent survey conducted among CEOs ranked California dead last for jobs and business growth.

Take taxes. California has the highest gasoline tax in the nation, and its combined sales-tax and local and state income-tax rates are among the nation’s steepest. California incarcerates the highest number of prisoners in the nation. It costs nearly $50,000 per year to house each one, near the highest per capita cost in the country.

I could go on, but you get the picture: The newly inaugurated Brown has problems well beyond a massive budget shortfall.

Perhaps the state’s problems are not of its own making but arise from a deficit of natural riches? Hardly. California has the most fertile soil and the climate most conducive to farming in the country. Tourists flock to see the beauty of Yosemite, Death Valley, and a 1,000-mile coastline. San Diego and San Francisco Bay are among the most naturally endowed harbors in the world. The state is rich in gas, oil, minerals, and timber. It has the largest population in the nation at 37 million residents.

Okay, but maybe prior generations failed to develop such natural bounty? Again, no. At one time, California educators ensured that their tripartite system of higher education was the envy of the world. The Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges, along with the Los Angeles freeway system and the complex network of state dams and canals, were once considered engineering marvels far ahead of their time. Visionaries made Napa Valley the world’s premier wine-producing center. California’s farmers found a way to produce 400 crops and half the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and created the richest food region in the nation. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are still the global leaders in computer innovation and entertainment, respectively.

Perhaps California did not invest in its public workers, skimped on entitlements, and turned away newcomers? Not really. Its teachers and public servants in many comparative surveys remain the highest-compensated and best-pensioned in the nation. Its welfare system is still the most generous in America. Seventy percent of its budget continues to go for education and social services. A state that accounts for 12 percent of the nation’s population generously provides for 30 percent of the national welfare load. More than a quarter of the nation’s illegal aliens are welcomed into California.

So in truth, the state’s problems involve a larger “California philosophy” that is relatively new in its history, one that now curbs production but not consumption, and worries more about passing laws than about how to pay for them.

California uses more gasoline than any other state and has the most voracious appetite for electricity. But Californians also enact the most obstacles to developing their own sources of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. State referenda and the legislature have made it the hardest state in the nation in which to raise taxes and the easiest in which to pass costly new laws.

The state’s mineral and timber industries are nearly moribund. At a time of skyrocketing food prices, more than a quarter-million acres of some of the wealthiest agricultural land in California’s Central Valley lie idle due to court-driven irrigation cutoffs — costing thousands of jobs and robbing the state of millions of dollars in revenue.

Home prices stay prohibitive along the upscale coastal corridor from San Francisco to San Diego, even as millions of acres of open spaces there remain off-limits for new housing construction. Most refined Californians who regulate how the state’s natural resources are used live on the coast far away from — and do not always understand — those earthy people who struggle to develop them.

California does not ask its millions of foreign immigrants to arrive with legal status, the ability to speak English, or high-school diplomas, and then is confused when its entitlement and legal costs skyrocket. Billions of dollars in remittances are sent from California to Mexico — but without the state being curious whether some of the remitters are on some sort of state-funded public assistance.

Somehow, Jerry Brown must not only change the way Californians act, but also the strange way they now seem to think — persuading the present generation to produce far more private wealth while consuming far less in public funds. Otherwise, the revenue-strapped and reform-minded governor will be little more than a modern Sisyphus — endlessly pushing his enormous rock uphill, never quite reaching the top.

 Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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