The Great Unraveling Comes To California

In 2004 Paul Krugman published a book that, at the height of the Bush Administration and less than a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger seized power in the 2003 recall vote, described 21st century America as embarking upon a “Great Unraveling” as the accomplishments of the 20th century were being undone by right-wingers.

As it turned out, the unraveling was only just beginning. It has taken the worst recession in 60 years to give that unraveling its full force and power here in California. Here in 2010, everywhere around us we see collapse, decay, and suffering – and a state government whose procedures are rigged to empower the small right-wing minority that is enthusiastically cheerleading the unraveling they’ve wrought.

Interestingly enough it’s two articles in today’s New York Times that show most clearly the depth of suffering and decay taking place in California. The first is Tom Friedman’s column, which riffs off of the insane news that Tracy is going to charge for 911 calls, an example Friedman uses to show the lack of desire to rebuild this country and pull us out of crisis:

But now it feels as if we are entering a new era, “where the great task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum.

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag….

Our parents truly were the Greatest Generation. We, alas, in too many ways, have been what the writer Kurt Andersen called “The Grasshopper Generation,” eating through the prosperity that was bequeathed us like hungry locusts. Now we and our kids together need to be “The Regeneration” – the generation that renews, refreshes, re-energizes and rebuilds America for the 21st century.

That isn’t going to happen as long as others in Friedman’s generation continue to prioritize wealth extraction and tenacious, even bitter defense of the status quo over “The Regeneration.” I see this all the time in my work in support of the high speed rail project, where prosperous homeowners in Palo Alto are doing everything in their power to try and stop the train project, merely because they think it will make their communities look ugly. They’ve even been able to convince the city’s mayor, Pat Burt, to reverse his position in support of HSR and to instead call for a delay in the project, despite a 30% unemployment rate among Peninsula construction workers.

The same attitude extends to our schools, which are facing a serious crisis as teachers are laid off, campuses closed, and educational opportunity shrinks; to our health care system, which careens from one crisis to another; and to our overall economy, which is increasingly dominated by a wealthy few who prefer to extract wealth that already exists, rather than invest in making new things that can create new wealth.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. But here in 2010, we’re seeing an almost colonial approach to economic development that destroys public resources and infrastructure combining with long-term unemployment (since wealth extractors have no interest in creating lasting jobs or prosperity) to produce a worsening social crisis. The NYT’s Peter Goodman explored this in Orange County:

Call them the new poor: people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives – potentially for years to come.

Yet the social safety net is already showing severe strains. Roughly 2.7 million jobless people will lose their unemployment check before the end of April unless Congress approves the Obama administration’s proposal to extend the payments, according to the Labor Department.

Here in Southern California, Jean Eisen has been without work since she lost her job selling beauty salon equipment more than two years ago. In the several months she has endured with neither a paycheck nor an unemployment check, she has relied on local food banks for her groceries.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, telling stories of middle-aged, middle-class Californians who are not only out of work, but do not have the resources to make some necessary adjustments. Food stamps, welfare, and Medi-Cal are being cut precisely when the middle-class and others need it to avoid homelessness and starvation. We’re cutting college classes and making it more expensive to even attend a community college and get some valuable retraining skills. Add in California’s ongoing lack of public housing and public job creation and you have a recipe not just for long-term unemployment, but for a massive expansion of an already-persistent underclass.

The stories Goodman tells are not new to California. They are familiar to anyone with any experience in East Oakland, South Los Angeles, or other communities that had been cut off from public support and economic opportunity for decades now, owing largely to the skin color of their residents. We are now seeing those problems grow deeper by becoming broader.

To bring it back to the great unraveling, the attitude of California’s right-wing politicians, who govern this state by virtue of the 2/3rds rule, is that this suffering is a good thing. Chuck DeVore believes the unemployed should just leave California. Meg Whitman has made a call for higher unemployment a key campaign pledge.

They have allied with the wealth extractors to reach out to some of those who still have some financial resources left – longtime homeowners, those still making good money – to recruit them to support the destruction of California. They argue against any and all tax increases because if they don’t, then the public might get the idea that some tax increases are indeed good and worthwhile, then California might follow Oregon voters and raise taxes on the rich and large corporations.

But it will take more than aggressively and persistently pushing for new investment in public services. As Friedman and Goodman both indicate, we also need to reorient our thinking. Our work and our society need to emphasize creating and making things, instead of making money on finances (rising home values, investment income, etc).

California has reached the end of a 60-year long model that emphasized massive consumption of non-renewable resources that caused major environmental problems, the most significant of which is global warming. We have the expertise, the workers, and the financial resources to address those problems by democratizing the economy, empowering more people to create sustainable ways of life, and building public services to provide the foundation upon which it depends.

Progressives will have to lead the creation of that new model for California. Nobody else will, because nobody else wants to.

4 thoughts on “The Great Unraveling Comes To California”

  1. The initiative process has had a very deleterious effect on California’s system of governance, but a group of dedicated grassroots activists is currently attempting to use this highly flawed mechanism in a way that actually serves The People and not the special interests who pay by the signature to get measures on the ballot.

    This genuinely grassroots effort (no special interest funds whatsoever are backing it) is aimed at getting an initiative on the November 2010 ballot that breaks all the rules.  It’s got a short and simple text: “All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.”  The California Democracy Act would end the legislative “2/3 rules” and thereby eliminate the means by which a small minority of right-wing legislators — who put the interests of corporations and the very wealthiest among us over the vast majority of those of us who call California home, who place the budgeting process into a state of gridlock year after year, and  who block funding for education, social services and infrastructure we all need — have done just that for more than thirty years now.

    To learn more or to sign the petition yourself, please go to

  2. Our local school went to a 4 day week this year to try to offer some of the programs like art and music that have been cut and cut and cut.


    In an effort to provide more extracurricular activities for their students this year, Potter Valley schools have cut back their traditional school week to four days for high school students and four-and-a-half days for kindergarten through grade eight children.

    To administration, they’re “thinking outside the box” to provide more for their students because Fridays offer ongoing eight-week sessions of activities such as band, art, mechanics, sports, computers, extra tutoring, as well as the option for high schoolers to have a part-time job on Fridays or the possibility for them to catch up on their homework.

    California schools are already down about $1200 a student, on average, from the amount they’re supposed to get. The latest budget suggests there will be another $300 reduction per student.

  3. The billions lost in tax revenue because commercial real estate is not reassessed until it sells which it can easily avoid by simply changing names within its ownership structure will be shown by a new study quantifying the loss by each county.  Unfortunately by the time the state passes the 2/3rd change and the commercial real estate rule changes, much of education and social support programs will have disappeared never to be seen again.  The quality of good teachers and good programs will go down the drain to the delight of our Norquist extremists.  Is Colorado Springs with no government beyond several police and firefighters their model for good government?  Time to make these destructors take some responsibility for their attitudes and actions.

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