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a New california

Reconciling the Paradoxes of Americas Golden State


A blueprint by

Patrick Atwater

Cover Photos: Modified from pictures taken by Ahmad Nabhan Copyright 2011 by Patrick Atwater All rights reserved. Printed in the U.S.A. First Edition No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval sytem without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, blog, or broadcast. Library of Congress Control Number: 2011911561 ISBN: 978-0-615-47466-3

For my Dad, whose dedication to public service and devotion to the public good allows me to have hope for this grand project. And for my Mom, whose goodness reminds me of humanitys better angels. In their honor, twenty percent of the proceeds from this work will be donated to Californias schools through DonorsChoose.


Like all projects, this book began with a question: what was up with this crazy place called California? Here is a place of immense wealth, creativity, and innovation boldly pushing the limits of the human potential. Yet we Californians are also defined by Rodney King, budget deficits, and high levels of poverty. Reconciling these paradoxes has been an intensely personal experience, in many ways the story of my life so far. My family goes back four generations here, and I am firmly a product of that heritage. People always ask me, Patrick, why California? Why do you care so much about this state? Well, why not California? I mean this is my home. And California is much more than a state. It also exists as an idea, standing as shorthand for the hope that we might live a better life in this world. Call me idealistic, nave, or whatever, but I believe ideas matter. Ideas are what distinguish us as humans from highly evolved slime, and it is through ideas that we can envision and then create a better future. That is, ultimately, why I am so committed to this project. Californias Dream of a better life has inspired incredible feats of

human ingenuity, creativity, and innovation. There is a reason Tesla, Pixar, and the local food movement call California home. Today, though, that dream is in many ways more myth than reality, a fact made poignant in the states education disparities. Californias white and Asian high school graduation rates top the nation, while black and Latino students hover just below sixty percent.1 More broadly, Californias governmental dysfunction feeds into this two tier society, scarring Californias promise that anyone would have the opportunity to make it here. I love California, more than squiggles on a piece of paper can meaningful describe, and these harsh realities break my heart. Most troublingly, we seem to lack the even the language to meet these challenges. Our political conversation often isnt a dialogue with other Californians so much as us talking past and around each other. So trying to claw past the rubble of contemporary California politics, I dug into our history and investigated our present to figure out what made California such a paradox. I read, well, everything I could get my hands on over seventy books, thousands of articles, and innumerable ephemera. And I talked to countless Californians from across the state in an effort to see whats driving Californias political paralysis and hear peoples stories about what makes us Californian. This book is the product of that inquiry. It is an effort to make sense of the paradox that is California and figure out why this place has so fully intertwined its identity with a myth. It is a struggle to find the redeemable kernel of that Dream and see how we can harness it to build a better life for all Californians. And ultimately, it is a question: why not fix California?


Part 1: Where We come from My Heritage ...1 Put in a word, Im Californian. My family goes back four generations here and my life has been defined by the struggle to find something more in this world. The Crossing Story ..9 Why is there a California Dream? Where did this Dream come from? And does it still have any meaning today? Part 2: the NeW NeW World Atlantis 25 California is often seen as a world-beater, as a nexus of power and technological prowess. Myth and fact intermingle as Californians quote the size of its economy or its impressive

technological accomplishments with the firm belief that California is a nation state unto itself. The Octopus .54 This idea of California as Atlantis is inextricably tied to notions of power, conquest, and wealth accumulation. That majesty associated with California as Atlantis found a symbolic counterpoint in the rise of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Part 3: the eNvy of the World Camelot ...71 A true Golden eraPost WWII, Caliofrniawas the most populous, most harmonious, most economically dynamic simply the best part of the Worlds best nation. It was an idyllic time of peace and prosperity, a mythical time where everyone worked together for that better life, a time when California was Camelot. Storm Clouds ...96 This Golden Dream of California was rudely ripped apart by the events at Berkley and Watts. These events served as harsh reminders that this Golden image was more myth than reality. Part 4: the edge of the World Eden ..113 With our iconic easygoing lifestyle, Californians enjoy pristine


beaches, inspiring mountains, Disneyland, and picturesque wineries virtually year round. Its famous natural environment beyond beautiful, its climate exceedingly pleasant, there is a persistent myth that California is Paradise on earth. Simple Arithmetic ..143 This idea of California as Eden presumes a California unburdened by limits, a place where nothing stop you from living the life you want, but California does actually exist in this world. The recurring budget crises starting in the early 90s offer a painful reminder of that fact. Part 5: a NeW califorNia dream Pragmatism 153 The fundamental paradox running through these ideas of California is that they posit a pure ideal, a place beyond this world in its perfection. California needs to remember that exists firmly in and of this world even as it tries to look beyond it. Golden State ..182 Practically, the way we can achieve that perspective is to have rigorous, ethical policymaking that aims towards the public good. The sheer complexity of Californias government makes that nigh impossible; through a constitutional convention, however, we can build a government that finaly reflects the potential of the California people.


ePilogue: our charge My Home ...203 Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and crisis has a way of bringing people together. This then is my hope for California an idea truly worth fighting for and a place that will always be my home. So why not fix it? What We Can Do...211 Acknowledgements ..212 Works Cited ...215 Notes .............223


Part 1 Where We come from

my heritage

Before I can say I am, I was.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Put in a word, Im Californian. My maternal greatgrandmother was a trailblazer, running for the State Assembly as one of this states first women candidates during the Hiram Johnson Reform Movement. On my dads side, my grandmother came West in the thirties with her family to escape the dustbowl and eventually help the war effort, bringing nothing more than they could fit in their blue Chevy and building a new life in Long Beach. Both my parents were raised here and went to Stanford University. My mom chose a career in public service, working as a legislative analyst and then deciding to become an elementary schoolteacher at the age of forty. My dad pursued a career in water policy, supplying Southern California with innovative new sources of local water. Tellingly, our family home in Paradise Valley has California native landscaping and uses one third as much water as the average Southern California home. In a deep way, good government is the Atwater family

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religion. Today my family makes our own limoncello. We play board games with a spirit of fiercely friendly competition. Atwater family dinner involves a trip to the local farmers market, the neighborhood Korean grocery store, the Italian deli down in Glendale, the Middle Eastern market on Verdugo or the great fish market near Wilson Middle School (or more likely all of the above). Conversation would often turn to blue sky policy debates about the role of education in a democratic society, how to deal with the reality of millions more people immigrating to water challenged Southern California, or the governance implications of humanity becoming a truly spacefaring race. Its these sorts of conversations that really get at what the Atwater family is all about. Humanity has problems. Why not solve them? Of course, the size of the question doesnt mean you have to be stilted in answering it. Growing up, Id often spontaneously bring friends by for dinner, still sweaty after a workout at the YMCA, because you cant let formalism get in the way of a great meal, and, well, Im Californian. And really Ive been blessed to live the California Dream. Growing up, I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, hiked the Swiss Alps, and climbed the Eiffel Tower. It was only when I was older, however, that I came to appreciate the stunning natural beauty and cultural heritage right here in California. Where else in the world does geography as varied as Yosemite, Mount Whitney, Death Valley, Big Sur and Malibu exist in a region the size of California? Who but the California people would think of putting Korean BBQ in a Mexican taco? More than just the good life, however, I have enjoyed Californias famous opportunity, getting an incredible education in the states public schools. Of course, as Joan Didion aptly put it in her eighth grade

Where We Come From

graduation speech: We cant stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.2 And thats really the question Ive been chasing my entire life: why not go on to better and greater things? My older brother Drew was a top math student, and I was always striving to beat him. I would end up getting second place at Los Angeles County Math Field Day. My parents ran the Los Angeles Marathon, so in sixth grade when I heard about Students Run LA, a program that gets kids to run the LA marathon, I ran home to tell my mom about it. My parents gave me a knowing smile. I ran and completed the Los Angeles Marathon in seventh and eighth grade. When I went to high school, I took every AP classes I could, because I thrived on intellectual rigor. My Dad played at Stanford, so I joined the football team. I would be an All-League linebacker and Scholar-Athlete both my junior and senior year and go on to start all four years at Claremont McKenna. I enjoyed my other major, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), for similarly competitive reasons. Somewhat uniquely, PPE at Claremont has regular tutorials, opportunities for you to sit down with the professor and a classmate and debate the merits of your paper essentially intellectual combat. In the meantime, I took a steady diet of abstract math classes. I was continually searching for something more, always looking to beat myself and go on to better and greater things. Sometimes, of course, chasing that Dream has unforeseen consequences. On February 5, 2010, I asked my lifelong buddy Drugan, Why not bike into Pasadena? It was raining, but wed talked about doing it for a while, and I was rarely in town. Really the timing was too perfect. So soon enough we were off and pedaling into the misty unknown, with nothing by my trusty Android phone to guide us. We went up

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Figueroa to Colorado, and while riding along these iconic LA streets past both rich and poor neighborhoods, I was struck by a surprising unification to these supposedly disparate Los Angeles neighborhoods. Everywhere I looked I saw the same low to medium density housing, the same autocentric culture, the same peculiarly L.A. eateries (old school cafeterias, burger joints, taco trucks, etc.), and the same love of backyard BBQ. The defining differences were of kind, not of categorythe size of the houses, the niceness of the cars, the number of thousands in the gas grills. Once in Pasadena, we reminisced about shenanigans past and schemed about the night to come. My best friend. My favorite city. The moment seemed too perfect to last. It was: soon we had to leave the comfort of the Thirty-Fiver and head back outside into the cold rain. We shivered our way back along Colorado until we reached the onramp to the 134 and the entrance to the aptly named suicide bridge. Deciding that trying to navigate a freeway onramp on a mountain and single-speed road bike might not be the best idea given the dark and rainy conditions, we elected to take the sidewalk to the pedestrian walkway. Narrow but navigable, the walkway put us right on top of the yawning panorama of the Arroyo Seco. I was quickly overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment. The aesthetic grandeur and rush of wind at my face fomented a sense of pure possibility, a bursting imperative asking why the California Dream couldnt become reality. Distracted by these thoughts, I found myself almost crashing into the railing. I quickly adjusted and chastised myself for admiring the valley below when there was a road in front of me, and turned my sights to the matter at hand. Still the darkness, the mist, and the old-fashioned lampposts created an ethereal atmosphere, and an inescapable floating sensation

Where We Come From

emerged. Soon enough that floating became all too real, as the ground fell out from underneath me. I found myself tumbling down what felt like a set of stairs. I dont really remember what happened next. Yet later Id learn what happened: I had fractured two vertebrae in my back and only by a small miracle avoided paralysis. I think something similar has happened to our collective California Dream. This idea has become so rarefied, so hyperidealized, that it cannot but crash into inconvenient realities. You see this impossibly perfect dream at work in beachfront communities, which convinces homeowners to imagine this land a sort of picturesque Camelot perfect for raising the kids! never mind how many times its slipped into the sea. You see it in Californias public employee pensions, which seem to imagine California as sort of Atlantian engine of unending economic growth. You see it in the aspiring starlet, who imagines California a sort of Edenic home to the good life and makes the pilgrimage to Los Angeles no matter how many stories she hears about struggling actresswaitresses. Historically, we saw the dream of California as a bastion of economic opportunity for all crash into reality of narrow corporate interests at the turn of the last century, when the railroad slipped its octopus-like tentacles into every aspect of California governance for its own selfish ends. More unsettlingly, we saw the dream of California as a society in which everyone had a place crash into the reality of the Watts and Rodney King riots, exposing prejudices deeply ingrained into our most cherished social and political edifices. Most poignantly, we feel the crash of the dream today. Our economy is slipping, with vast swathes of the population endemically unemployed. Our K-12 schools, once exemplifying Californias commitment to equality of opportunity, now rank

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in the bottom of the nation. Our vaunted higher education system, formerly the envy of the world, is in crisis amidst fee hikes and an unprecedented reevaluation of the fundamental tenets of its master plan. Our prison costs are exploding. The list goes on and on. And amidst all these pressing policy challenges, our politicians can only bicker across a yawning ideological divide. Yet there is hope. After the dysfunction of the Octopus came the great Progressive Reform of the early 20th century. After the great racial earthquakes came the present day, a time when political scientists have started talking about postracial voters and when a generation is coming of age that cares less and less about the old antagonisms of the past. History is on Californias side. We have overcome our societal crashes before, and there is no reason we cannot overcome them yet again. Later that fateful February night, my parents left my bedside to go home, only to find a few hours later that our home had become an island, awash in a sea of mud. The Station Fire had raged just feet away from my neighborhood earlier that year, stripping the mountain of plants to hold the dirt in place. The inevitable mudflow flipped cars and tossed multi-ton K-rails like toys, crashing them into my neighbors homes. The dream my family built in Paradise Valley was running into the reality of living in a fire-prone chaparral. At a policy level, the courage and dedication of the firefighters, police officers, and other emergency workers belied that truth. The tremendous resources society spent to protect our home hid the fact that we chose to live in such a dangerous area. There is no good reason for all of society to subsidize welloff Californians like my family to live in natural disaster prone areas. Either we need to pick up more of the tab through user fees, or we shouldnt be allowed to live there. Being a fan of freedom, I would prefer the former. That way people can still

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live in immediacy with Californias incredible beauty, but they are both made aware of the costs of their choices up front and society does not have to unreasonably bear their burden. The underlying point is that we can, through smart policy making and other institutional mechanisms, structure society so that the dream doesnt crash so dramaticallyor even perhaps, at all. It is these sorts of stories, of a dream made too abstract for this world, and the potential for sound governance to provide a firm reality-based structure to undergird the abstract beauty of the California Dream, that I hope to elaborate in the coming pages. Because at the end of the day, Californians will dream. Volunteering at my mothers classroom, I read a book about a family coming to California during the Gold Rush. I asked the kids, who could have formed a nice mini United Nations, why their family came to California. They told touching story after touching story about how their parents immigrated here because in California there were better jobs, better weather, or really just the possibility of a better life. Those stories affect how we live our lives. The other day I met a young father over in Compton who was looking for a new job so he could move to the Inland Empire and live closer to the San Gabriel Mountains. There Charles said he would find good schools and a good community where he could raise his daughter. And I think that explains the intense look in his eyes as he explained how everyday he looked at the San Gabriels and why I will remember the way he said My Mountains for the rest of my life. Even in the depths of the sea of sprawl that is contemporary Los Angeles, people look up and dream of something more. So as California stands mired in an unending budget crisis and gnawing doubt about what the future holds, I have written this book to ask the California people a simple question: Why not

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come together as Californians to fix our government and build that better life?

the crossiNg story

To all who believe in the power of dreams... welcome. Disneys California Adventure opens its golden gates to you. Here we pay tribute to the dreamers of the past... The native people, explorers, immigrants, aviators, entrepreneurs and entertainers who built the Golden State. And we salute a new generation of dreamers who are creating the wonders of tomorrow ... From the silver screen to the computer screen ... From the fertile farmlands to the far reaches of space. Disneys California Adventure celebrates the richness and the diversity of California ... Its land, its people, its spirit and, above all, the dreams that it continues to inspire. Michael Eisner, CEO Disney3 California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath


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the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent. Joan Didion, California Author and Essayist Why, of all the fifty states, is California the only one that tied up its identity in something as ephemeral as a dream? Why, for that matter, is California such an enduring symbol around the worldinstantiated in universal icons like Google and the Beach Boys? Today, California is Americas Gateway to the Pacific, the place where East meets West. But it is also, as Luis Valdez points out, El Norte, the land that was once lost but now found through the promise of a new home. At the crossroads of migrationNorth, South, East, and West California forged a universal ideology, a dream that all men yearned for. California would be that land of milk and honey, that land of eternal sunshine, that hope buried deep in the hearts of all mankind. But where did this idea come from? The California Dream did not emerge spontaneously out of an atemporal void. Rather, the idea of the place is inextricably linked to its history, being a product in that sense of its American founding and the broader Western drive to conquer the New World. Under the rotunda of the state capitol building in Sacramento is a statue of Christopher Columbus kneeling before Queen Isabella of Spain. The discoverer of the New World holds a special significance; it was heand financier Queen Isabellawho set the process that created American California in motion. The Age of Discovery, fortune, conquest, glorythis is the language of the imperialistic spread of Western civilization. That underlying adventuresome gumption, that Western lust for the New World, found a corollary in Manifest Destiny and an ultimate home in California.

Where We Come From


In his classic novel on the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald poetically captures what man must have felt when he first came to the New World. Set in the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby offers a powerful meditation on the origins and underpinnings of the American Dream: And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsbys house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.4 This rupture from everything he knew and held dear had an indelible impact upon the colonial psyche. Torn away from tradition and the crushing weight of the past, man found something new on the Atlantics western shore. This project, the great American experiment that continues to this day, is what makes the United States so distinctive exceptional evenand still so fascinating to contemporary thinkers. In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard, the sharp shooting lone ranger of the post-Marxist left according to Rolling Stone, played a modern DTocqueville and took a road trip around America in a grand attempt to figure out the place: It is by an act of force or coup de theatre the


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geographic exile of man within his own consciousness adding itself to the voluntary exile of man within his own consciousness that what in Europe had remained a critical and religious esotericism became transformed on the New Continent into a pragmatic exotericism. The whole foundation is a response to this dual operation of a deepening of the moral law in individual consciences, a radicalization of the utopian demand which was always that of the sects, and the immediate materialization of that utopia in work, custom, and way of life.5 Baudrillard, through the cloud of his particular brand of postmodern pontifications, actually hits the nail on the head. America took Europes Enlightenment ideals and attempted to make them realat least ideologically. Such pragmatisma quintessentially American philosophypervades the American consciousness, instantiated through Americans emblematic love of facts and the American Dream itself. America had enoughresources, land, and opportunitythat everyone, provided they were willing to work for it, could achieve the basic material standards necessary for well-being. Laden with such sentiments, Americans slowly crept Westward, civilizing the frontier one fur outpost, one town, one settler at a time. But then, suddenly, the world leapt past the boundary of the frontier en masse. Magnetically drawn by the discovery of gold, pioneers poured into California, bypassing the steady march of frontier expansion to find the New New World. Here explorers, settlers, and pioneers cast off vestiges of tradition once again and embraced the uncertainty of a new place. It is through this process that, paradoxically, at the culmination of his great Western project, man finds himself enmeshed in a humanistic unity, at the place where East meets

Where We Come From


West, something very different from what he started for so very long ago. In that sense, California is the culmination of the West, a sentiment eloquently expressed in the Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication: Its the edge of the world And all of western civilization The sun may rise in the East At least it settles in the final location. From Plymouth Rock to the dusty paths of the Oregon Trail, European and then American settlers slowly forged a new civilization. But in California, this journey ran up against the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Encountering the liminal space of Western yearning, Californians intermingled their identities with the cultures they initially sought to supplant. That is why California is not another American state but, as Carey McWilliams says, a revolution within the states. The same sort of initial rupture from the old world and enduring symbol of hope that defined America would be recapitulated in California, within the American experiment itself. Just as immigrants from Europe came to America in search of happiness and the opportunity to escape their pasts, many Americans from the 49ers of the Gold Rush to the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl back home went to California again in pursuit of a better life. California developed outside of the American frontier, surging into statehood in 1850 before the other Western States. It wasnt an extension of Eastern America like the Midwest but an island on the land a sun drenched daydream with streams literally paved in gold. Here the American Dream, short-circuited across another arduous


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journey, amalgamated with the preexisting idea of California. The place was named for the land closest to the Terrestrial Paradise, embodying the sort of myth-making that defined early European exploration. When Americans saw something that came close to the idea during the Gold Rush, they became entranced with the potential of California. So we began to dream new dreams. These ideas, so detached from the burdens of the past and immediately confronted with the possibility of the present, rarefied the American Dream to ideals of perfectiona good life fully lived, utopia achieved on the shores of the gentle Pacific. Here there was so much space natural, technological, cinematicthat surely anything was possible. The material concerns of the American Dream would be quickly satiated, easily satisfied by the gold that literally paved Californias streams. Not content merely to live comfortably and be materially well off, Californians dreamt of something more than the ability to put food on the table. Anyone might come to California and reinvent themselves, living their ideal of the good life. This fundamentally human desire to reach our potential would come to define that amorphous set of hopes, beliefs, and aspirations loosely tied together under the umbrella of the California Dream. That is why Kevin Starr says, as a working definition, the California Dream is the idea that because of California, we might have a better life. This sense of real promise, of hope so very near, is beautifully articulated in the last stanza of Walt Whitmans Song of the Redwood Tree. Self-described as a California song and prophecy, the poem powerfully captures the humanistic hope imbued in the heart of the California experience: Fresh come, to a New World indeed, yet long

Where We Come From


prepared, I see the Genius of the Modern, child of the Real and Ideal, Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America, heir of the past so grand, To build a grander future.6 Even Californias failing could be subsumed within that larger hope that our current shortcomings only point to Californias incredible underlying potential. Of course, any cursory reading of California history will show you that we never actually achieved that grander future. Instead, we are confronted with the facts of California existencepast and present. Hope, no matter how poignant or overflowing, can never correct the injustice done to the Native Americans, the Californios, or the Chinese. It can never overcome the historical damage done to the Californians that were (and perhaps still are) systematically shut out of its famous opportunity. In that context, the dream of a good life in California can easily seem the trite whimsy of a privileged few, a hedonistic narcissism that easily transforms into an ideology justifying historical oppression. Perhaps more damagingly, the shocks of war and depression functioned as clear reminders that Californians lived in this world, with all the dangers that the situation comes with. As of today, Californians are subjected daily to news stories of politicians too divided to pass a budget, of an economy sputtering and increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots, of a once proud education system humbled, of a business climate strangled by regulation, of ever worsening traffic, of environmental degradation, of their supposed Paradise spiraling downward into a hell of mediocrity. All Californiansnot just the excluded other


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might be subject to the painful reality of waking up from the California Dream. That is the challenge of California today. The California Dream threatens to become an American nightmare. Perhaps then, we would do we well to follow Kevin Starrs suggestion: Memory then, must come to our aid; for while the recovery of the past can traumatize, it can also heal. A culture failing to internalize some understanding of its past tragedies and past ideals has no focus upon the promise and dangers of the present.7 Yet, important and ridiculously impressive though that task is, Kevin Starrs project is only the first step. Chronicling California, categorizing the crucial real and imagined moments within our past, allows us to remember where weve come from, but it doesnt show us how those lessons apply in the present. We need not only the memory of the California experience but to reflectdeeply and profoundlyon what that experience means for California todayand what sort of California we will have tomorrow. Standing on the shoulders of the great minds of California, the people who really articulated what the place is all about, reflection allows us to try and piece together what those brief snapshots mean into a coherent picture. That will mean, as much as possible, getting out of the way of such genius. So rather than attempting to make claims out of my own, trivial experience, I will instead try to adjudicate these complex ideas into standalone threads. In practical terms, this will mean many block quotes, perhaps more than the academy finds acceptable. Yet we should not follow rules blindly, lest they become empty invectives and our devotion mere dogma. The standard criticism of frequent use of quotations is that it pulls the voice of the work away from the author. But this is exactly what I want. Im trying to let the voice of California shine through, intervening only as is necessary to tie the disparate

Where We Come From


threads of the California Dream into a unified picture. To attach a metaphor, if Kevin Starr wrote down the whole play that is California, baffling in its complexity, then my project is an attempt to tell a few stories that really exemplify the placeparables that will hopefully shed some light on who we are and where we need to go. This project will necessarily be an oversimplification, as all statements about something as complex and multifaceted like California ultimately are, but there is value to simplicity even if it brutalizes nuance. The totality of California is impossible to cognize without it. I should note, that in a very real way this project is a work of intense arrogance. Who am I to say what the California Dream really is all about? What makes me worthy to tell Californias society where it needs to go? But, then again, if not me, who will attempt to reflect on the story of California, dreaming about what really bind us together as a people? California right now desperately needs those dreams to remember why Californiaa place at the cutting edge of civilization where any part of humanity might call homeis an idea worth fighting for. That is, ultimately, the only reason that I wrote this book. I see in California such hope, such promise, and yet such uncertainty. California already has all the toolsall the societal unity, all the technological prowess, all the energyburied deep beneath the rubble of contemporary politics. Ive merely tried to sift through all that nonsense to try to figure out a more thorough, more historical, more place-driven understanding of who we are as a peopleand who I am as a person. If Ive reached any conclusions worth talking about, its only because California has such a vibrant tradition of poets, financiers, historians, entrepreneurs, scientists, industrialists, philosophers, musicians, and other thinkers that have each in their own


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way already done so much of the heavy lifting. Attempting to climb onto the shoulders of these giants, I have tried to achieve a better perspective on this land that is so perpetually shrouded in mystery. The problem in this project, which is also the problem of California, is that the totality of California is a paradox. There is an enduring disconnect between the ideal of California and the reality of life here. We imagine it a special place, even though it consistently (and painfully) fails to live up to that image. Carey McWilliams, one of the great distillers of the California experience, makes that point at the beginning of his seminal work on the subject, California: The Great Exception: Like all exceptional realities, the image of California has been distorted in the mirror of the commonplace. It is hard to believe in this fair young land, whose knees the wild oats wrap in gold, whose tawny hills bleed their purple winebecause there has always been something about it that has incited hyperbole, that has made for exaggeration. The stories that have come out of California in the last hundred years are almost as improbable and preposterous as the tale from which the state gets its name. Although the exceptional always incites disbelief, it comes to be accepted as perfectly normal by the initiated; and thus a problem in communication arises from as different standards of credence emerge. Like Alice to whom so many out-of-the-way things had happened that she had begun to think that very few things indeed were impossible, the Californians have acquired a manner of speaking that arouses ridicule. The failure of understanding that has resulted is based on the difficulty of avoiding the hyperbolic in describing a

Where We Come From


reality that at first seems weirdly out of scale, off balance, and full of fanciful distortion.8 Much recent California scholarship has tried to strip away the deeply ingrained myths about our shared past and reveal the true character of the California experience. But might these myths, as social embodiments of our historical yearnings, be in fact necessary to have any chance of understanding the California experience? Might they actually be the defining attribute of the true California experience? As James Houston says, It is now almost impossible to separate the place on the map from the legends that have kept it alive in the imagination.9 So rather than aiming our analytical lens at some transcendentally perfect notion of what California really is, we should accept the myths and attempt to see how they actually fit within the larger California experience. We cannot hope to understand the failings of California if we do not have a grasp of the dream we are falling short of. My project is thus to demonstrate why the California Dream has so persistently exceeded reality and reflect on the lessons we can use for California today. How can we reconcile the idea of California as Atlantis, a globe-bestriding bastion of economic and technological power, with the brutal fact that the Southern Pacific used that power to systematically dominate California political life a hundred years ago? How can we square the idea of California as Camelot, a harmonious community where everyone worked together to build a better life, with the brutal reality of the Watts riots? How can we resolve the idea of California as Eden, a sun-soaked Paradise where anyone could live the good life, with the recurring inability of the state legislature to pass a balanced budget on time? The basic problem with these myths is that they create a


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dream beyond this world that cannot but clash with the realities of living in it. So why dont we come together to build a New California Dream one freed from this sort of absurd utopianism that is pragmatically focused on bettering the lives of all Californians? Such a viewpoint is needed. California has endured a painful cycle of budget deficits, windfall government revenue, followed by more painful budget deficits since the early 1990s. This structural imbalance has reached a head today; with the Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) projecting $20+ billion deficits as far out as 2015.10 Californias floundering policy responses to the economic crisis are mirrored in the publics confidence. Just before the 2010 gubernatorial election, 93% of voters surveyed in the October 5th Field Poll said that California was in bad economic times. Not surprisingly, 64% of general election voters ranked jobs and the economy as the number one issue facing the people of California, fifty points higher than it was in 2006. This situation is not without cause. In 2004, Bain and Company found that Californias regulatory environment is the most costly, complex, and uncertain in the nation.11 More broadly, California ranked third to last in Pews 2008 Grading the States Report Card, a holistic measure of the state governments performance.12 Meanwhile the states economy has slipped from fifth to eight among the worlds largest economies in the past decade. In essence: the sheer complexity of Californias government is bringing the state to its knees. So to start making that New California Dream a reality, why not simplify our convoluted state government? And why not go one step further by harnessing the pioneering spirit inherent in that dream to build a government that reflects the potential of the California people? The need for good government couldnt be more pressing.

Where We Come From


Kevin Starr warns that California might become Americas first failed state. Our schools, once the pride of a nation, now wallow near the bottom. Our freeways are clogged; our infrastructure is overburdened; our confidence as a people is plummeting. The very fabric of our society is at risk of tearing apart like the ephemera of a dream taking on too much wind. This dysfunction has implications beyond California; the place is the ultimate case study for whether we can make it as humanity. As Dan Walters likes to say, California is the most complex society in the history of humankind. More people have come here from more places in less time than arguably any other place at any time in human history. Over 220 languages are spoken in Los Angeles County alone. In the short, 160-year history of American California, the place has been transformed from a provincial backward into a boomtown into an extractive fiefdom into an industrial powerhouse into the cutting edge example of the New Economy. Combined with this condensed history, Californias diversity makes it seem the world in miniature, a microcosm for all the foibles and triumphs that define us as humankind. In that sense, California is a beacon, a symbol that inspires and horrifies the whole world. The reach of the California Dream is global because its aspirations are humanitysthe idea that tomorrow we might have a better life. California took those ideals and imbued them with a confidence that yes this is possible. California says: We dont have to wait forever for redemption; the good life is possible in the here and now. Humanity is not endemically fractured, destined to at best wait for an otherworldly paradise. Eden can exist in and of this world. And therein lies the irrefutably redeemable kernel of the California Dream. Despite all the failures, the monstrous realities that run like fault lines through its ideals, California


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overflows with humanistic hope. A skinny boy in Austria grows up to be a muscle-bound movie star and then the governor of millions. A young girl growing up with a drug addict mother grows up to be a highly ranked surfer and an international model. A Korean immigrant from South Africa invents a cancer drug that saves millions and makes him billions. The earthquakes are as dramatic as its shortcomings painful, but would it not be worse to not even try for a better life?

a New california

sePtember 9, 2011

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