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Sunrise, Sunset

<i> Alex Raksin is a member of the editorial board of The Times and chairman of the 1998 PEN Center USA West literary awards</i>

It’s been a nasty fall from the paradise that Peter Schrag thinks California approached in the 1960s. Back then, he writes, Progressive leaders like Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and University of California President Clark Kerr helped make the state “both model and magnet for the nation” by sanguinely spending billions of dollars on highways, aqueducts, schools and universities.

Since the 1980s, California has built 20 prisons (double what it built in the previous century) but no new UC campuses, and its grade schools have plummeted from the top to the bottom quartile in most state quality indicators. Today, there are fewer school librarians in California than in Alabama, and the number of black students in the state’s four-year colleges and universities, 27,000, is dwarfed by the number of blacks in its prisons, 45,000.

Dramatic contrasts indeed, and they are sure to grow starker unless state legislators and the gubernatorial candidates can begin seriously and candidly discussing the reasons for its social decline.

“Paradise Lost” could be an excellent starting point for that colloquy, but it’s likely to have trouble winning popular acceptance for three reasons.

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First, Californians have been historically reluctant to accept advice from gloomy literary augurs who seem to want to power down the state’s main engine of growth: its sunny mythology. Few politicians, for example, explored the wellsprings of the 1992 riots that could be found in Mike Davis’ 1990 book “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.”

Second, Schrag, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is hawking esoteric, albeit essential, policy reforms (like constitutional revision) in a state where even hot-button issues like managed-care regulation go unreported by commercial TV stations, none of which maintains a bureau in the state capital.

Finally, Schrag comes off as a big-spending liberal--praising the “stunning run” in which Pat Brown spent billions on “an enormous burst of highway construction"--in a state that still believes government should stay small and out of the way. Schrag seems convinced that our freeways are dilapidated but, subliminally at least, voters may empathize more with the Michael Douglas character in the movie “Falling Down,” who, having had his morning commute blocked by one too many blinking orange Caltrans construction signs, spoils one project with a bazooka.

Three strikes, however, shouldn’t mean that Schrag is out. For while Schrag may wrongly idealize the big government paradigm of the past, “Paradise Lost” reveals the inability of the present small government paradigm to plan for the future. An uncomfortably dark undercurrent does flow through the book: an implication that the state’s politics have soured partly because the older white people, who tend to vote, don’t want to spend money on the schools and other social services that would primarily benefit the younger, largely Latino people, who tend not to vote.

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Schrag downplays other, more hopeful interpretations. The surge in Latino voting in the June primary, for example, shows that the political picture is brightening, and the divisions that remain have less to do with the cynicism of the electorate than with a political system that exacerbates social division by favoring special interests.

Most Californians know that Proposition 13 reduced the property tax revenues that used to fund local services like libraries and schools. But fewer people realize that ever since the recession of the early 1990s drained its budget, Sacramento has tapped cities’ and counties’ few remaining property tax revenues for its use. The state now returns some of this money to the cities and counties, but since the funds are allocated according to hopelessly tangled formulas introduced into the state Constitution by various ballot initiatives, it’s difficult for politicians and voters to figure out where authority really lies.

What cities and counties have been allowed to keep are sales taxes, but ironically this has led them to act against their best long-term interests. Many cities prefer sales-tax-generating businesses like discount shops to new manufacturing plants, for instance, even though manufacturing plants generate better jobs with higher wages. Thus, service sector jobs proliferate and erode urban wages, already depressed by the growth of free trade.

Moreover, since Proposition 13 and other initiatives have made it impossible to determine where the buck stops, political campaigns are increasingly funded not by civic leaders eager to improve their communities but by special interests seeking to manipulate the system for personal gain. As Schrag writes:

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“The declining engagement of business and other community organizations, and the corresponding paucity of leading citizens--lawyers, merchants, accountants and other professionals--willing to run for office has left a vacuum that’s been filled by special interest groups: the Christian Right, which has managed to gain at least temporary control of a handful of districts in Southern California, but more often the public employee unions--UTLA (the United Teachers of Los Angeles) and the California Teachers Association and its various local affiliates, which have become the dominant political force in California education.”

Most politicians continue to argue that the best way to grow the state’s economy is to offer low taxes and minimal regulation. But this small government paradigm is largely responsible for the state legislature’s troubling tendency to react to problems like crime rather than rise to challenges like education. Since 1980, for instance, the state’s prison budget has increased 847%, but its spending for higher education has risen only 116%. As Schrag correctly observes, the “theory of bargain basement public services makes no sense. . . . While high wage business hesitates about moving to California, concern about the poor condition of the schools and the social infrastructure appears to loom as large as taxes and the cost of housing.”

Fortunately, some state leaders outside politics are beginning to acknowledge the need for fundamental change. The problems so astutely identified in “Paradise Lost” underscore the need to implement the reforms now being crafted by the California Governance Consensus Project. That broad-based coalition of leaders from business, labor, education and other interests is now working on constitutional revision proposals that could clarify lines of political authority in the state.

Many political historians credit California for helping inspire the democratic social and economic reforms of the Progressive Party; however, California may never have been as Progressive as its myth-making boosters have claimed. Gov. Hiram Johnson may have introduced the ballot initiative in 1911 as an instrument whereby the people could check the excesses of a state government dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, but as this 1914 editorial from the New York Times correctly observes, from the get-go, initiatives were hardly democratic:

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“While pretending to give greater rights to the voters, [the initiative] deprives them of the opportunity effectively and intelligently to use their powers. They receive the right to vote much more often and on a larger number of matters than before, but the number and variety of the votes they are called on to cast does away with all chance of really using sense and discretion as to all of them. . . . The new method is proposed as a check on the machines. But the strength of the machines lies in the inattention and indifference of the voters, and the voters are sure in the long run to be more inattentive and indifferent in proportion to the number of questions forced upon them at one time.”

Leaders like Pat Brown and Clark Kerr, whom Schrag calls Progressive, were really rather autocratic, spending money, however wisely, on education and other public works when the people might have preferred tax cuts. To their credit, such leaders helped conjure California out of a mere desert; as historian Kevin Starr puts it, they helped “invent the dream.”

But California has become too complex, as the world’s seventh largest economy and one of its most socially diverse regions, to be managed by a few visionaries leading from the back room, while the hoi polloi is distracted with a sideshow of inscrutable initiatives and empty promises.

Schrag’s call for greater investments in schools, libraries and other public services seems to paint him as a liberal merely advocating more social spending. But his vivid portrayal of a state incapable of planning for its own future suggests the need for a more profound and less partisan shift in the state’s political culture: away from both the autocratic politics of California’s past and the anti-democratic special-interest-dominated politics of its present. The real insight suggested by “Paradise Lost” is that the time may have come for us to start inventing the dream together.

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