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California Finally Got a Budget?

July 29, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
California Finally Got a Budget?

I really wish I could put an explanation point on that sentence, but we’ll probably be back in the same place a few months from now.  Revenues are still declining precipitously and much of the deal was smoke and mirrors. The deal included $2.1 billion in borrowing and $1.5 billion in fund shifts.  The latter includes things like shifting state workers’ pay day from June 30 to July 1.  And the bonds are going to be expensive: our bond rating is at BBB.  That’s not to mention the fact that not all of the $15.5 billion of cuts actually deserves the name or the very real possibility that the $4 billion of new revenue likely won’t occur.  Personally I think we just needed to realize how obvious the solution really was.  Yet before anyone starts laughing at California’s expense, let’s consider a pithy analysis by  Joe Matthews:

And where would the federal government be without California? In big trouble. For one thing, the United States would lose the substantial subsidy from our state's taxpayers. That's right, we subsidize you. California gets back about 80 cents for every dollar we pay in federal taxes. And, while we're on the subject, don't forget the damage that California, as an independent country, could do to the U.S. dollar if we started printing our own currency. The Chinese would be wise to sell their U.S. dollars and instead invest in debt issued by our new republic, which would be a better risk. Perhaps California could provide the new alternative global currency standard that Chinese President Hu and Russian Prime Minister Putin are talking about.

If California wasn’t stuck attached to the rest of the country, we’d be Sweden.  A little more exciting and dysfunctional perhaps, but Sweden nonetheless.  And regardless of what you think of the welfare state, that certainly beats our current situation.  Yet the some think that’s just the tattered remains of what once was; the National Editor of the Atlantic pronounces the Dream dead:

“It was a magnificent run. From the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, California consolidated its position as an economic and technological colossus and emerged as the country’s dominant political, social, and cultural trendsetter…  It was a sweet, vivacious time: California’s children, swarming on all those new playgrounds, seemed healthier, happier, taller, and—thanks to that brilliantly clean sunshine—were blonder and more tan than kids in the rest of the country. For better and mostly for worse, it’s a time irretrievably lost.”

No, the pundits, as usual, have to be taken with a grain of salt.  What this schadenfraude really is about is a perverse combination of angst and pent up anger towards California’s cockiness for the last hundred or so years.  The rest of the country always looked at California with suspicion: Why are they so special? What made them think they could have the best of everything?  California represented the nation’s hopes and dreams.  Just as America offered the promise of a better life for millions around the globe, so did California for millions of Americans—with the same resulting jealousies and love/hate relationship.  So now that it’s supposedly over, they can’t help but enjoy it a little.  But there’s a nervousness to their laughter.

As John Hodgeman said, “It’s like they think they can Europe over there, but without taxes and clean teeth.”  But the California Dream was always a bit absurd: gold literally paving the streams, sunshine all year round, and everyone living the Good Life.  If the American Dream is to be thought as taking the ideals of European Enlightenment and amalgamating it across the very American ideology of Pragmatism, then the California Dream has taken that Dream and pulled out the rug of reality from underneath.  Why not a house for every home and a starlet in every girl?  Why not make the American Dream a reality for everyone?  There’s more than enough space here—natural, cinematic, technological—to make it happen.

But occasionally that rarefied ideal crashes into some inconvenient realities.  Isn’t that the paradox of California’s Constitution?  Seemingly everything deserves a place in the sacred document—a bit of the state for all!  The People have said spoken.  Of course, if everything is fundamental, then really nothing is.  And therein lies the hollow kernel of the California Dream—just as devoid there as in Santa Barbara’s monotonously worry-free living.  That’s why there’s no neat, easily referencible parable for it.[i] Yet as we claw desperately for social redemption, there is value and virtue in obfuscation: only there can all of humanity hope to fit.  For California’s Dream is ultimately man’s, the idea of creating heaven on earth.  That’s why there’s no need to write California off yet: there’s bound to be some earthquakes when you sublate the divine into the temporal.


[i]Compare that to America’s one house, two cars, a white picket fence, and 2.1 smiling children.

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