Reading my friend Laer Pearce’s book Crazifornia: Tales from the Tarnished State – How California is Destroying Itself and Why it Matters to America made me crazy. Laer is a wonderful writer with straightforward, prose, a witty sense of humor that doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and a commanding mastery of facts about California’s politics, business, education, and public policy. In theory, I should have galloped through Crazifornia in three hours. In fact, it took me three days to read.
Why did I have a problem with this fascinating book? Because, when I started I did not know how deep the Crazifornia rot ran in the state, nor was I aware quite how infectious the insanity is when it comes to the rest of America. To keep up with the deluge of evidence proving that California is indeed crazy, I repeatedly stopped reading so that I could scratch out little notes to myself: “California’s all-powerful bureaucrats are an army of Leftist Rube Goldberg’s with guns.” “This is a perfect example of voter credulity and bureaucratic overreach.” “California takes a legislatively created energy crisis and makes it worse with more legislation.” The scariest note I wrote was also the shortest: “As California goes, so goes the nation.”
That last note is why you should read the book — and give it to friends and family — in the days remaining before the election. California isn’t just a basket case, it’s a proselytizing basket case, with its environmental zealots, community organizers, and wishful economic thinkers aggressively selling their ideas to other states and to the federal government. As Laer demonstrates, while the recession is slowing the other forty-nine states from buying into California’s governing philosophy, the Obama government is an enthusiastic supporter. Another four years of Obama, and California won’t be the only bankrupt crazy place in America.
Unlike the federal government’s swift, Obama-driven belly flop into bankruptcy, California actually has a long and occasionally honorable history of Progressive politics. Crazifornia explains that back in the early years of the last century it was California Progressives who helped bankroll the movement across the United States. These early ideologues were actually fighting some legitimate battles, most notably against San Francisco’s utterly corrupt alliance between railroad moguls and local government. Take away these honorable battles, though, and you learn that the early California Progressives were exactly the same as today’s California’s Progressives: they were the rich and the educated, which meant that they could fund their ideas and pass them on to subsequent generations.
Because California had long been blessed with enormous natural resources and a vital, growing population, it had the wealth to keep the impractical Progressive dream going for decades. It could abs0rb the enormous financial and human losses from almost heroic bureaucratic ineptitude (Chapter 5); laws and regulations that suck the life out of both new and established businesses (Chapter 6); ridiculous educational experiments and an all-powerful teachers union that has little interest in student well-being and education (Chapter 7);* environmentalism run amok (Chapter 8); and public sector unions and pensions that have managed to go wherever one ends up when “amok” is a distant memory (Chapter 9).
Lately, though, things haven’t been going so well for California. Part of the problem is the national recession. The other part is the fact that California’s collection of Progressives, Environmentalists, Educators, and Reporters, whom Laer collectively christens “the PEER axis,” have destroyed the state’s ability to tap into her resources, both natural and human. Take, for example, the Prop. 50 fiasco, which is one of a huge subset of fiascos generated by a California citizen’s right to vote on legislative ballot initiatives.
The PEER axis bankrolled and sold California voters on the Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Projects Act (aka Prop. 50), an initiative that added $3.4 billion of indebtedness to California’s already overburdened economy. Thanks to fine print in the newly enacted legislation, the Ocean Protection Council, which has nothing to do with drinking water, managed to get its hands on Prop. 50 money. Lunacy ensued:
So, what are Californians getting for their money, which costs them $227 million a year in interest payments? For starters, the bureaucrats that serve as the council’s staff engineered a quarter-million-dollar grant to a Portland, Oregon outfit called Ecotrust to develop a pilot program for a seafood market at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf that would be filled with “regionally sourced” seafood. Talk about inept. Any visitor to Fisherman’s Wharf can tell you free market enterprise has already filled the place with fishmongers hawking regionally sourced seafood. That doesn’t keep Sacramento’s eco-bureaucrats from subsidizing an Oregon group’s seafood stand on the Wharf, even if it has nothing to do with the clean water voters thought they were voting for when they passed Prop. 50.
If the Prop. 50 economic adventure was just a single boondoggle, one could laugh the whole thing off, despite the high price tag. The problem is that this vignette — voters being sold a bill of goods, only to see legislators, bureaucrats, unions, environmentalists, and carpetbaggers waste the money — is repeated over and over again at both the state and county level. For example, in the normal world, a prison doctor too incompetent even to provide the basic care accorded prisoners is fired. In California, the Department of Corrections pays him $400,000 annually to work in the prison mail room.
Then there’s the California Courts’ new integrated case management system. Originally budgeted for $260 million, the current cost estimate is now $1.9 billion, with another billion needed after completion so that the system can actually be deployed (seven years late). That’s going to be some integrated case management system, right? Noooo, not so. After two of the largest counties that participated in a system trial serious contemplated pulling out entirely:
An audit by the California State Auditor recommended that the whole CCMS endeavor be stopped and reconsidered because it is so far behind schedule, so far over budget and so at risk of quality problems when it finally is implemented.
In the private sector, heads would roll. In California, this is government business as usual.
Mere inefficiency isn’t the only problem. There’s also significant corruption. One notable example of this corruption endangered the lives of thousands of Bay Area commuters. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed a section of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Almost twenty-three years later, the California Department of Transportation is still working on rebuilding the bridge. (To be fair to the men who do the very difficult and sometimes dangerous labor, it took almost twenty years before they even started construction. Caltrans was too busy dealing with regulations, environmentalists, and unions to start the work any sooner.)
Caltrans assigned one of its own, Duane Wiles, to do the seismic testing on the new bridge span. In an area bounded by both the Loma Prieta and San Andreas faults, this is a very responsible position. Wiles wasn’t up to the job:
A Sacramento Bee investigative report found that Wiles failed to properly conduct tests on the Bay Bridge’s new span and dozens of other bridges, fabricated results on at least three Caltrans projects, often discarded his raw data files and inflated his overtime pay. Perhaps all this was merely the side effects of personal problems Wiles was experiencing at the time, as he faced felony charges for a sex crime against a child.
That’s bad. Here’s worse: Alert employees had given Caltrans notice about Wiles’ ineptitude three years before a whistleblower approached the Sacramento Bee. Caltrans did nothing. Then, when the reporter approached Caltrans asking about Wiles, Caltrans’ first response wasn’t to fire Wiles, but to move him to a less visible job.
Again, the Wiles’ adventure wasn’t unique. If you take this bureaucratic instinct to protect its own, and combine it with an environmental zealotry that actively seeks to return California to a pastoral, pre-industrial (and very poor) age, and you end up with the sorry history of a regulatory decision that, when it goes into effect, will make trucking prohibitively expensive in California.
There’s nothing unusual in California about a pro-environment, anti-business regulation. What is unusual is that trucking regulation was based upon provably false data. Even more unusual is the fact that the California Air Resources Board, which promulgated the regulation, knew that the data was false, termed the falsity a “distraction,” passed the regulation, and suspended the malfeasor for a mere 60 days. Balancing those 60 days out, however, was UCLA’s decision to fire the professor of epidemiology who exposed the fraud. UCLA reached this decision because the professor’s work was “not aligned” with his department’s academic mission. (The professor has appealed that decision and is still working.)
Crazifornia describes a dysfunctional state, one that can best be summed up as a banana republic governed, not by oligarchs, but by a toxic mix of environmental fascists, greedy unions, corrupt or ideology-driven legislators, and all-powerful bureaucrats. But before you get too angry at these jackals, perhaps you should reserve your wrath for the ones who truly deserve it: the California voters.
Despite a dying economy, a feckless government, and dangerous corruption, voters are undeterred. It sometimes seems as if all 100% of the 47% who won’t be voting for Romney are voting in California. If you don’t know what California voters look like, I certainly do:
It’s probably too late to save California. Laer tries to inject some optimism at the end of each chapter and in the conclusion to his book he notes that voter patterns might finally be changing (although recent polling data makes me less optimistic). As cities go bankrupt, gas and food prices rise, businesses bail, and the California middle class becomes poor, some of the voters might finally be growing up. Whether they can reverse California’s downward trend remains questionable. Laer has some excellent suggestions for getting the political pendulum unstuck from its far Left position, but it will be ugly, and it will have to be carried out by people who have been subjected to one hundred years of California’s Progressive propaganda.
When you read Laer’s book (and I hope this review has convinced you to do so), you will see that it is a profound morality tale about what happens when America’s green, anti-capitalist Progressivism gains the upper hand in government. So remember, only you can prevent the Crazifornication of America.
* In the interests of full disclosure, Laer interviewed me regarding some of my own experiences as a public school student in San Francisco, and he includes parts of those interviews in Chapter 7. Plus, I get an awfully nice thank you in the Acknowledgements section.
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