With a dateline of Atherton, David Brooks, The New York Times conservative columnist who liberals and NPR listeners can love, has come West to diagnose California's problems.
As he is wont to do, he splits the difference, saying both left and right, Republicans and Democrats, abandoned the state's tradition of business-friendly progressivism.
California became a place of bounty from 1911 through the 1960s through the policies of governors who shunned partisanship — they were business friendly but had a progressive vision.
David Brooks was born to write this column.
They rode a great wave of prosperity, and people flocked to the Golden State, but they used the fruits of that prosperity in a disciplined way to lay the groundwork for even more growth. They built an outstanding school and university system. They started a series of gigantic public works projects that today are seen as engineering miracles. These included monumental water projects, harbors and ports, the sprawling highway system and even mental health facilities.
They disdained partisanship. They continually reorganized government to make it more businesslike and cost effective. “Thus,” the historian Kevin Starr has written, “California progressivism contained within itself both liberal and conservative impulses, as judged by the standards of today.”
Brooks blames governors and legislators beginning in the 1970s who caved too many times to public employee unions, whose salaries, pensions and benefits have soared. That left little money for infrastructure spending: It has dropped from 20 percent of the state budget to 3 percent.
He also blames overzealous environmentalists: A new cadre of activists arose — hostile to suburbia, skeptical of capitalism and eager to impose greater regulations and costs on small businesses.
(Brooks might have pointed out here that the prosperity of the 50s and 60s was in important respects unsustainable — you can't just keep building out to the suburbs in perpetuity.)
Then, Brooks makes his classic Brooksian pivot, blaming the right for “refus(ing) to acknowledge the public sector's role in creating the state's prosperity. With Proposition 13 and other measures that cut taxes, they cut off revenue and pushed through structural reforms, making it hard for future administrations to raise funds. Many on the right became unwilling to think creatively about using government to promote prosperity.
(Another oversight: With Prop. 13, government revenue shifted from local to state government, which stymied local government and gave people less stake in local governance.)
Unfortunately, Brooks doesn't have much to say when it comes to what do about the current mess:
The answer is to return to the tradition of pro-market progressivism that built modern California in the first place. Except this time, it can't be about building up the '50s-style suburbs. It needs to focus on supporting the immigrant entrepreneurs, averting state bankruptcy and unleashing the industrial and agricultural base.
What does all that even mean? How do you “support” immigrant entrepreneurs, avert bankruptcy and “unleash” the industrial and agriculture “base.”
Maybe that's his next column.