James C. Banks

California or Californias?

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2011 at 12:28 am

Walter Russell Mead has an interesting post on California, the failed state.  He points to the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Plata, as evidence that California has exceeded the point of any redeemable governability:

Let there be no mistake: when you produce so many criminals that you can’t afford to lock them up, you are a failed state.  Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point.  Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters.  Your schools aren’t educating enough of your kids to make an honest living.  Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away.  Your management systems must be fouled and confused to the max for you to create something so dysfunctional, so wildly beyond your means, that the Supreme Court of the United States (wisely or foolishly is another question) starts to micromanage your jails.

This argument is perfectly true in theory, though it might not be entirely reflective of California’s present situation.  As the Economist recently pointed out, locking criminals up is not the only way of dealing with crime.  Crimes such as theft, forgery or marijuana use could be addressed with hefty fines instead of prison cells.

But more interesting is Professor Mead’s proposed solution to California’s ailments:

The only hope I can see is to break it up.  California’s core problem is that it has outgrown the constitutional model we have for it.  California is too populous, too diverse, too complicated to flourish as a single state.  Unless we carve this beast into something like five more compact and manageable states, Californians will never have decent representative government at an affordable price.

If California had been on the East Coast, or if it had entered the Union at any time other than the crisis years before the Civil War when slave states jealously worked to minimize the number of free states, the idea of making it one state would have looked absurd from the start.  As it is, the constituent parts of California have almost nothing in common.  Northern California is more like Washington and Oregon than like anything farther south.  The neighborhood of San Francisco Bay has its own history, character and interests that set it off from the rest of the state.  Greater Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Far South centered on San Diego also have what it takes to be successful and happily governed states on their own.

I can see the benefits of this sort of schism—not the least of which for economy.  Whereas potential states like the Bay Area (which would probably call itself something like Ginsburgtopia) would be freer to pursue their own economic preferences, they would also have to take more responsibility for these preferences and pursue a more business-friendly climate as they would now have other states with which to compete.

This situation would also give the respective states the ability to renegotiate public sector union contracts, as the Golden Bear State would no longer exist (where else but California and Illinois need such renegotiation more?).

But all of the above-mentioned reasons are also reasons why any such schism would be strongly opposed.  The task of allocating responsibility for public sector pensions funds would, in itself, be a bureaucratic sinkhole.  And this is only at the state level.

At the national level, the issue would become even more vitriolic.  Breaking California up into five different governments would have little to no effect on the Republican majorities in the House (and might actually lead to greater majorities, if the Republican states that came out of the schism attracted entrepreneurial individuals from northern California and Los Angeles).

But the demographics of the U.S. Senate would be strongly affected in the opposite direction: Los Angeles and San Francisco would remain solidly Democratic, as would northern California.  The San Diego region would probably become a swing state and the San Bernardino Valley would be a fairly solid Republican lock.

Republicans would probably only agree to such a measure if they were given something in return.  The State of Lincoln, perhaps?  This is unlikely, but, more importantly, while the schism solution may make sense with a single case like that of California, it would set particularly bad precedents for policy at the national level.

While this solution probably would not set off a rampage of federal legislators seeking to break temporarily ailing states into smaller—collectively more influential—units, it would certainly demonstrate that national parties can benefit from local failures: Like the immigration issue, it would pit different levels of federal government against one another.

California may be ungovernable and—for all of Professor Mead’s skepticism of reform— Sacramento needs to think about discharging many of its responsibilities to counties and cities.  But while there may be room for more stars on the flag, there is not room for more seats in the senate.


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