Out of Control Policy Blog

Will Golden State's Malaise Play Out For the Whole Nation?

Congressman Tom McClintock has written a cogent analysis of how California got itself into such dire straights:

Bad policies. Bad process. Bad politics. Those are the three acts in a Greek tragedy that tell the tale of how, in the span of a single generation, the most prosperous and golden state in the nation became an economic basket case.

He paints a bit of a golden era picture of California in the 60's. 

When my parents came to California in the 1960’s looking for a better future, they found it here. The state government consumed about half of what it does today after adjusting for both inflation and population. HALF. We had the finest highway system in the world and the finest public school system in the country. California offered a FREE university education to every Californian who wanted one. We produced water and electricity so cheaply that some communities didn't bother to meter the stuff. Our unemployment rate consistently ran well below the national rate and our diversified economy was nearly recession-proof.

University was not free, it was paid for by taxes, as was electricity.  But the fundamental fact that government provided services in California back then were some of the best in the country and consumed far less of people's wealth remains true.

One thing – and one thing only – changed in those years: public policy. The political Left gradually gained dominance over California’s government and has imposed a disastrous agenda of radical and retrograde policies that have destroyed the quality of life that Californians once took for granted.

McClintock goes on to point out how the Obama Administration is copying the worst practices California has pioneered:

Federal spending increased 26 percent in the last three years literally consuming and squandering the wealth of the nation at the worst possible time. Yet consider this: from July of 2005 to July of 2008, California increased its spending by 31 percent, under a Republican governor elected on the pledge to “stop the crazy deficit spending”. You can see how well that’s worked for us.

If stimulus spending, massive deficits and burgeoning government bureaucracies were the path to economic prosperity, California should be leading the nation from the top rather than from the bottom. After we lost the nation’s triple-A credit rating this summer specifically because of chronic deficit spending, it should surprise no one that California suffers the lowest bond rating in the nation for precisely the same reason.

He goes on to dissect the policies California has pursued that have undermined the quality of life Californians enjoyed in its golden age, running from water policy to education.  But as he points out, process matters too. The state legislature used to do a fairly good job of a few things, but once it tried to do everything, it found it could do nothing well:

In the 1960’s, California’s legislature was respected throughout the country as the model for others to follow. It was professional, it respected process, and it worked. It did a few things, but it did them exceedingly well. It left local schools, local governments and local revenues in local hands. But beginning in the 1970’s this began to break down.

The humility that kept Sacramento from sticking its nose into the business of local governments gave way to the hubris that the state knew better what was important to local communities than those communities themselves. The appalling breakdown of federalist principles at the national level now geometrically compounds this problem.

McClintock also dissects the state's disastrous politics.  It is a good read. 

California's leaders, abetted by a short sighted, lazy polity too willing to vote themselves the wealth of others and to ignore any concept of tradeoffs, have eviscerated the state.  There is nothing logical or sustainable about the path we have been on and appear dead set to stay upon. And the Obama administration appears to love what it sees and wants to take the disaster nationwide.  Folks, please. Look at California, shudder, and vow "not the rest of us."

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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