California's Broken Dream

Once the land of promise, a great social safety valve, California is now in trouble. Can it find resources for renewal?

THESE days, just about the only folks urging, "Go West, young man!" are the California U-Haul dealers desperate for rental trucks as nearly everyone seems intent on moving elsewhere. Always one step ahead of the rest of the nation in a direction others might never choose to follow, the state today seems to have fallen victim to its own impossible dreams in pursuit of an untenable way of life.

But California has always seemed less a state than a state of mind. It has always felt, especially to immigrants from the east like me, a world apart - richer, freer, blessed by nature and perhaps somehow favored to escape the limits of history and custom, offering boundless opportunities.

Of course, California wasn't much of a dream for millions who came in answer to its beckoning - only to find its opportunities locked behind gates of privilege.

For the "forty-niner" gold-strikers (most of whom left the state empty-handed), the Depression dust bowl refugees, and today's embittered blacks in LA - descendants of those searching for opportunities denied elsewhere - the California Dream became a mockery and a mirage. "California is a Garden of Eden," sang Woody Guthrie, "a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do re mi."

Still, despite its contradictions, California has continued to offer most citizens a heaping measure of life's blessings, in large part because of its immense natural and human resources and its once boundlessly expansive economy.

But dreaming has been the state's undoing. California's irresistible allure so inflated real estate values over the past decades that in 1978 a tax-weary public voted to limit future property assessment increases to just 2 percent per year unless the property had changed hands or undergone new construction. The impulse was understandable, but the result was both inequitable and impractical. Proposition 13 handsomely rewarded those who had bought into the California Dream before 1978 while placing a huge tax burden on all who came after.

Many warned that Proposition 13 would undermine the state's tax base and eventually destroy much of what made California a desirable place to live. But when the predicted catastrophe didn't instantly occur (its effects delayed by a hefty budget surplus, rapidly rising real estate prices, and an enormous infusion of defense dollars during the '80s military buildup), most believed that once again, California would prove exempt from the laws of gravity and economics.

BUT it wasn't to be. Devastated by declining real estate values and defense spending, and rising unemployment, the state now faces its most troubled times since the Great Depression. The consequences of California's fiscal irresponsibility wash across the land like a thousand-mile tsunami, carrying off much of what remains of a once bounteous public realm.

Already savaged by budget cuts endured in the aftermath of last year's $14 billion budget shortfall, schools and universities, health-care services, fire and police, and other essential institutions are being slashed by the new budget agreement to close this year's $11 billion deficit.

Few events so starkly reveal both the bankruptcy of the California Dream and the state's stubborn denial of reality than the 63-day impasse between Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. For more than two months, the two deadlocked over education cuts demanded by the governor and resisted by assembly Democrats while the state was forced to issue some $3.2 billion in IOUs to employees and institutions both public and private. In early August, most of the state's major banks

ceased cashing these warrants.

Struggling to stop fires in drought-stricken forests, the state's firefighters could not even buy dinner, dependent like refugees on the Red Cross. The state's once-celebrated system of higher education may raise fees and slash programs - even eliminate an entire freshman class. Elderly and disabled persons, dependent on state aid for home care, fear abandonment.

Given drastic cuts of essential services, the public response has been oddly muted. It is as if most Californians are still dreaming, not yet aware how utterly their lives are about to change. Few followed the arcane budget debate in Sacramento, thought it entailed real consequences for everyone. But when probed more deeply, many express an understated sense of foreboding. The world's most optimistic people exhibit an uncharacteristic mood of resignation.

Earthquakes, fires, droughts, epidemics, riots, and bankruptcies. California, once most fortunate, now seems most afflicted. Yet I retain faith in the capacity of this indulgent but ingenious people to adapt to changing circumstances in positive ways.

California is Dream Country, where the climate and culture irresistibly inspire hope. For many years now, alongside the conventional California dream - a house in the suburbs with two cars, two kids, and a mall - alternative ways of life have grown up that may be more attuned to the future's frugal economy and fragile ecology. During the boomtime binge of the '80s, these alternatives often seemed unduly austere, even eccentric. But in the lean, green '90s, they begin to seem like simple common sense.

Some of the world's best - and worst - ideas first bloomed in California's fertile firmament. The worst of them precipitated the present collapse of the commonwealth. And the best may yet provoke a rethinking of priorities that would not only rescue the state from its most egregious excesses but contribute to the resolution of a global crisis of which this blessed and benighted culture is a leading edge.

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