Turning Off the Soft Lighting : Nostalgia's Golden Glow Masks State's Strengths

John Micklethwait is the West Coast correspondent of the Economist

Out of all the delusions a country can fall into, nostalgia is probably the most pernicious, because, at first, it seems so harmless. But soon, celebrating traditions gives way to wallowing in them. Nostalgia isolates a people, dragging down their economy and ushering in politicians with meaningless promises to bring back "the good old days." Racism and protectionism often follow. History is littered with peoples who have succumbed and drifted, from ancient Greece to postwar Britain.

In California, until recently, "nostalgia" was just a marketing ploy: It appeared in movies, like "Grease" and "American Graffiti;" it sold jeans; it was a style that came and went. But it was not serious. After all, nostalgia is an old man's disease. California, the youngest part of the New World, has been built on looking forward. Its best ideas, its best technology, even its best cuisine pays scant attention to tradition.

No longer. Even before the Los Angeles riots, Californians were unusually pessimistic about the future. Now the burnings and beatings have given renewed credibility to longing for the past. You can hear that longing on the radio, see it on television newscasters, overhear it in malls and restaurants. It is usually explained in code: "It's not how it was," "We used to make that," "We used to be just 10 minutes away," "It used to be so safe." Occasionally, it carries a racist tint--"The neighborhood's changed" or "Nobody speaks English there now."

Such feelings were evident before the riots, but they lacked a symbol. Now, just as the Suez Canal crisis and Dien Bien Phu destroyed self-confidence in postwar Britain and France, the riots seem to have persuaded California that its day has gone. For California's nostalgists of every political persuasion, the riots are the beginning and end of the argument.

Rather than promise bright tomorrows, politicians now pledge to restore yesterday. Mentioning Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., who was governor from 1958-66, has become de rigueur for any Californian speaker. Pete Wilson, the current governor, calls the state "a bad product," whose business environment stinks--as if it was a can of beans past its sell-by date. The barometer of California's health is now a bygone age when there were highly paid manufacturing jobs, uncrowded freeways, good schools, affordable houses: the land of Ozzie and Harriet.

To a Briton, such nostalgia is terrifyingly familiar. It is like listening to an old colonel talk about "the Empire." The stories can be beguiling: I can smell the orange blossoms in Anaheim and picture the poppy fields along La Cienega, just as I could once hear water lapping by houseboats in Kashmir. But, as with the colonel, California's nostalgia ignores the march of history. Ozzie and Harriet are no more revivable than the British Empire.

Many Californians will bridle at this comparison. After all, clear freeways and big paychecks were around so recently; the British Empire was a prewar affair of flags and marching bands. Yet both are gone forever. America's golden age--particularly the period between 1945 and the first oil shock in 1974--relied on the weakness of other countries. The only way for California to relive its golden era would be to bomb Japan, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, China and Britain to smithereens. Then restart the arms race, to keep order books flowing at McDonnell Douglas, Northrop and Lockheed.

America's economy is now--as at the beginning of the century-- primus inter pares. That means it needs to trade with others as well as itself. Rather than shutting itself off with its memories, it has to open up. Trade already makes up 15% of the gross national product, double the proportion in the 1950s and 1960s. Any country--or state--that remains an island in this new world will disappear. California can no longer leave it to Beaver--or to Northrop.

So the state has a bleak future? Not at all. The irony is that, viewed from anywhere except California, the state's prospects look surprisingly good. So much of its pessimism could be cured by a plane ride. The state's current recession, bitter as it seems, appears less horrifying to anybody who has visited the potholed streets of New York, seen the homeless shivering in Chicago or looked at plunging real-estate values in New England.

If there is one area where nostalgia has proved blinding, it is the fabled "exodus" of people and businesses from Southern California. To hear local people talk, Los Angeles is a smoggy ruin that businesses and people are fleeing. An alternative view, which has the merit of being statistically accurate, is that Los Angeles is the trading and manufacturing center of the world's biggest, most productive economy. Before the riots, it was still attracting many more immigrants and businesses than it lost. After the riots, many new arrivals may choose to plant themselves farther out in the suburbs, but they will keep coming.

Similarly, the end of the Cold War hurts one pillar of California's economy, defense--but it only accounts for around a 20th of state's work force. California's other big businesses read like a roll call of "sunshine" industries: trade, entertainment, computers, biotechnology, environmental services and the non-defense parts of aerospace. Such industries may not offer as many skilled manufacturing jobs as the defense industry, but they make a better foundation for the future than, say, Michigan's car plants.

Unfortunately, nostalgic California is hacking away at some of its advantages. For a state built on immigrants, too many new laws in Sacramento seem aimed at discouraging newcomers from arriving. Los Angeles County recently ousted Sumitomo from the Green Line contract--to save 80 local jobs. Forget, for a moment, the racist undertones of the move. Instead, consider the decision on pragmatic grounds: Los Angeles, a city where 1 million jobs are tied to trade, risked angering its most important trading partner--just so 80 workers could help make rail cars!

Yet perhaps the most deadly part of nostalgia is its role in putting off institutional change. In Britain, love of the past has buttressed the country's Achilles heel--the class system. California's competitive weakness is its ungovernability. It is hard to claim that nostalgia has killed attempts to reform--because there have not been any. Instead, it has preempted them. The only issues that seize voters' attention are local ones--like stopping a new freeway or increasing police. Behind each fight is a desperate, almost painful desire by voters to keep their little patch of California as it is.

In Britain, such people are called "little Englanders;" here, the name "little Californians" implies a unity that does not exist. The nostalgists are little Santa Monicists and little Bakersfielders. Even when their heads turn toward bigger issues, they are tackled in the same selfish way. Nowhere is that truculence more divisive than the proposition movement, which has become the political equivalent of a gated community: It demarks an area--usually a white middle-class one--and then tells the government or other citizens to keep out.

Again, closer study reveals an obsessive will to hang onto California's idealized past. Proposition 115 seemed to hope that, simply by revising the criminal code, the cozy world of "Dragnet" could return. Proposition 13, the fiscal centerpiece of Californian nostalgia, allowed home-owning voters to gather up "their" piece of the state and then raise the drawbridge behind them. The result? An institutionalized class system, separating those snug inside the Prop. 13 castle from those gathered at the gates.

Persuading those inside the citadel to abandon their seductive memories will be painful--but necessary. If the riots prove anything, they show that California must experiment. California has every right to be proud of its past; it would be a pity if wallowing in it harms the bright future that is its for the taking. As the old line goes: Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

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