California's real looming disaster. (Hint: It's not 'San Andreas.')

Dwayne Johnson's 'San Andreas' conjures up yet another disaster for the Golden State. But it's the state's man-made disasters that bear watching, such as its massive unfunded liabilities. 

Andy Wong/AP
Actor Dwayne Johnson uses a smartphone to take a selfie next to director Brad Peyton (l.) during a press conference to promote their latest movie, 'San Andreas,' at a hotel in Beijing on Thursday.

This week marks the premiere of "San Andreas," a movie about earthquakes and tsunami waves that wipe out much of California.  The silver screen has a long history of imagining unimaginable disasters for the Golden State. "Them!" (1954) features giant mutant ants nesting in the Los Angeles sewer system. In "Earthquake" (1974), a magnitude 9.9 shaker triggers shoddy special effects and catastrophic overacting. "Volcano" (1997) is about a lava flow from the La Brea Tar Pits, threatening death and destruction until Tommy Lee Jones orders it to stop.

As science, these movies are silly. As metaphor, they aren’t too bad. To dwell in this state is to live with the risk that awful things are just about to happen.

The news from California often involves natural disasters. If you’ve been here long enough, you’ve probably made quite a few phone calls that go like this:  “Hi Mom. See what’s happening on TV? That’s not my house. I’m not dead. Love to Dad.  Bye.”

Earthquakes are our state specialty. Although they do not get quite as powerful as the cinematic versions, they can cause a lot of damage. They’re particularly scary because they can strike at any time with no warning. You’re brushing your teeth, then boom!  Within seconds, a radio reporter is doing a phone interview with a random citizen who speaks of feeling “a rolling motion.” (We’ve had so many earthquakes, we’ve developed clichés to describe them.)

Like other parts of the country, we can also get wildfires, floods, and mudslides. And lately, we’ve had a slow-motion natural disaster in the form of a long, serious drought. If you want to get a glimpse of where we’re heading, read Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, "Dune."

Other potential disasters – the kinds that humans make – lie in the not-too-distant future. Californians face massive unfunded liabilities for public-employee pensions and health care. Some municipalities have already filed for bankruptcy, and others are heading for severe fiscal strains.

Gov. Jerry Brown likes to point out that state revenues have been very healthy in recent months, but these numbers are misleading.  Half of the state’s personal income tax revenue comes from the top one percent. Thanks to a booming stock market, California’s richest households have been doing very well indeed lately.  But there’s one sure thing about bull markets:  They always end. And when the bears overtake the bulls, state income tax payments will take a huge hit.

In Silicon Valley, life is good. In Fresno, not so much. There is a big gap between the top one percent and the rest of California: The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the state has the nation’s fifth-highest level of inequalityAccording to a census report, we have the nation’s highest poverty rate.  This report takes account of housing costs, which are extremely high and are driving out many poor and middle-income workers. Last year, a nonprofit ranked the states on child homelessness, ranging from 1 (best) to 50 (worst). California ranked 48th .

Unless the state addresses job creation and housing costs, the next economic downturn will make these problems much worse. And that would be a disaster more serious than anything that Hollywood could dream up.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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