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California’s Tomorrow: A New System of Values

<i> Kevin Starr is the author of "Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s," to be published this fall (Oxford). This article is adapted from an address to the California Taxpayers Assn. </i>

Values flow beneath the surface of our consciousness like great Pacific currents. Nothing cuts more directly to this vast inner realm of choice than the question of taxation.

Money is one of the two or three great and powerful mysteries of human culture. In social and political terms, money raised from taxes emerges as the most powerful force we own and administer in common. Alexander Hamilton saw this from one perspective. The power to tax, he said, is the power to govern.

Thus when we Californians tax one another through legitimate agencies of government, we express the profundity of the ties that bind us together. Without money, without taxes, there is no res publica , no public thing, no common identity or commonweal. The old-fashioned English word commonwealth expresses this point perfectly.

In California this question of “common wealth” has an even more powerful valence because we are a complex, multi-ethnic society. We constitute, in fact, what might very well be the first successful polycultural commonwealth in these United States--a commonwealth that takes no one ethnic or cultural tradition as its preemptive norm but seeks instead to empower social and political structures that function efficiently on behalf of all individuals and all groups.

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In terms of lessons from the past, the relationship between value and taxation in California is fascinating. It also holds a few surprises. California, for instance, woefully underfunded education, especially secondary education, in the middle and late-middle 19th Century. Not until the 1890s was there anything resembling a flourishing high school system in place. Americans of that era tended to leave school after the primary grades.

And 19th-Century Californians were also slow to spend proper funds on flood control. Prof. Robert Kelly of UC Santa Barbara, in his forthcoming book, “Battling the Inland Sea,” writes about how state engineer William Hammond Hall struggled unsuccessfully in the 1880s to encourage a workable statewide water plan. Only by the late 19th Century did it finally dawn on the political community that water was the paramount public issue facing the state. Even then, it took another two decades and more before anything truly creative was done about it.

Twentieth-Century California reversed itself on water and education. By the 1960s, in fact, we had largely defined public state culture in terms of the excellence of the statewide water program, educational system and highways.

These programs--water, education and highways--were empowered by vision and values. Each served the creation of California as a mega-state with a population moving toward 25 million. The heroes of this era were creating a society that could support a large educated population, with a level of physical mobility unprecedented in any previous culture--a mobility, in fact, making automobiles and freeways the very symbols of a new world called California.

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Crime and social deviance was the exception in that era; today they become increasingly the rule. We plan vast prison systems and we raise the money through bond issues to build them without even allowing ourselves the luxury of lamenting the crime waves that make all this necessary. As I understand it, California has a higher portion of its population in prison than any other commonwealth on the planet. Our predecessors planned for the future; we are forced to plan for the social disaster of crime and its aftermath.

We are also beset by the necessity of responding, through tax-supported programs, to other socially catastrophic problems: drugs; the breakdown of the family; the epidemic of violence including sexual abuse against children; the social effects of alcoholism ranging from deaths on the highways to industrial accidents to declining productivity; the increase of the severely mentally disturbed howling on our streets, and the new phenomenon, homelessness, displaying an intensity of visible suffering and disorder unprecedented since the long lines of the Great Depression.

A recent report in San Francisco newspapers describes how the social effects of crack, joining with the health-care costs of the AIDS epidemic, could possibly bankrupt the city. Neither crack nor acquired immune deficiency syndrome were even heard of 10 years ago, and yet today they pose a substantial social and economic threat.

As a taxpayer I have my own shopping list of values. First, I believe there resides in most California taxpayers a pervasive suspicion of large-scale public works or bureaucratic structures as solutions to problems. Thus we can expect to see taxpayer resistence to the construction of the peripheral canal as a solution to the state’s water problem; to the construction of a massive multi-billion-dollar public transit system or heroic augmentation of existing highways as a solution to gridlock in Southern California and elsewhere; to the construction of block public housing; to the construction of more and more buildings as a solution to educational problems; to the construction of more and more prisons as protection against crime.

One can expect, rather, an emphasis on programs as opposed to construction, solutions based on more sophisticated software as opposed to further hardware. Thus water-use patterns will be dramatically modified through tax penalties and incentives. Thus a process already under way--the alignment of job sites and housing sites--together with tax and toll systems will be used to ease the transportation crisis.

In education, we will be emphasizing classroom discipline, student/teacher contracts with incentives and enforced penalties, parental responsibility and right of review, better teacher salaries and incentives as opposed to the construction of more buildings. In housing, more and more incentives will be given to developers who create affordable rental housing on unused sites adjacent to public transportation, on marginal properties near industrial parks or on metropolitan properties under public jurisdiction.

In the matter of crime, we will have reached the physical limits of prison-building and prison capacity in the early 21st Century. There will therefore be an emphasis on longer sentences for the violent--the relatively small group that repeatedly commits the truly terrible crimes--and a growing use of community-sponsored public service and work programs for first-time offenders. Victims of adult crime will be awarded major financial indemnities from those who have abused them. Lifetime liens against income will become part of sentencing. Crime, in other words, will cease to be a free ride for the criminal.

An emphasis on programmatic responses is based on a growing awareness, among liberals and conservatives alike, of the limitations of government. Again, if government were the solution, California would be Utopia; for we Californians support, in comparative terms, the most developed government infrastructure in the United States. We are, in fact, the most governed state in the nation.

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Because each individual will be expected to put more effort into his or her own personal survival, the disposition to favor one or another targeted social group for special consideration will come under assault. With the exception of a growing bias in favor of children--the most defenseless victims of poverty, crime and social misbehavior--there will be a growing tendency toward a philosophy of equity cutting across ethnic groups and generations. This will not involve a philosophy of indifference or racial intolerance. It will, rather, be an increasing realization that Americans cannot sort themselves out from each other on the basis of race, creed or generation.

We must struggle to be fair, finding ways to reward positive behavior in every sector of our culture. We will no longer take social misbehavior as the norm; instead we will regard all the peoples of California as equally capable of good and bad behavior. Thus we will cease to pay for programs out of guilt and start to pay for programs that work.

California, in other words, the first true multicultural commonwealth on the planet, might be the first state to accept in its private values and public policies the full terror and glory of equality among its individual citizens.

We will continue our bias toward the environment; for Californians, the environment has been a primary icon of identity since the days of John Muir. On the other hand, we will harmonize environmentalism with a program of proper growth, for we will have long since realized that a total no-growth philosophy represents violent injustice against aspiring minorities today and future generations of all ethnic backgrounds. Only dead entities cease to be nurtured and to grow. The current no-growth philosophy is based, simultaneously, on a massive selfishness and despair: selfishness regarding others who are not so prosperous, despair of our ability to find and enforce solutions that allow for growth that respects the environment. Thus California’s already flourishing interplay of nature and technology, high-tech and high touch, will continue to flourish as a value system affecting the way we raise and spend our taxes.

Hope for a larger measure of human happiness is, after all, the fundamental energy source for the California Dream. California is not just anywhere.


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