In his introduction to The Beholden State: California’s Lost Promise and How to Recapture It, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal magazine, writes:
A generation ago, California was widely expected to be the dynamo of the twenty-first-century American economy — “California, Inc.,” as Joel Kotkin and Paul Grabowicz called it in a book published in the early 1980s. The Golden State had everything going for it: a famously sunny, temperate climate; a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism; a growing population that easily found work in a diverse economy; good public schools that prepared students for success, and an even better state university system; sturdy infrastructure; and geographical proximity to increasingly prosperous Asian nations. The future was Californian.
Today, few would describe California as dynamic. Signs of decline are everywhere. In 2012, the state’s economy seemed to be recovering, at last, from the Great Recession — but that was long after the national recovery had gotten under way. In fact, California’s unemployment rate has remained above the nation’s for years now, climbing to a frightening 13 percent in 2010 and still hovering around 10 percent. In parts of the state, the numbers are worse still. New business investment, both from within California and from without, has vaporized. The public schools, once near the top in national rankings, have sunk to the bottom. Roads and bridges creak and crumble as infrastructure spending dwindles. State and municipal budgets have reeled from crisis to crisis, with several cities falling into bankruptcy. People and firms are leaving the state in record numbers.
What caused this reversal? In the broadest terms, the answer is misguided policy, rooted in a political culture too often disconnected from reality.
Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor of City Journal magazine and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who contributed several articles on California’s woes to The Beholden State (along with PJ Media’s own Andrew Klavan and Victor Davis Hanson), believes that while there’s much to still enjoy about the formerly Golden State, there’s much that’s gone wrong as well. As she told me at the start of our recent interview:
I think it’s the most beautiful state in the country; as a native, I’m obviously a little prejudiced, but I think it is a exemplar of identity politics, for one thing. There’s too many institutions that are convinced that the most important thing about its residents is their racial or ethnic national origin identity and — and increasingly, of course, gender and sexual identity. And we see that playing out in university admissions, in ideas about crime and policing and immigration policy, and I think that’s a betrayal of what California used to mean, which was a real meritocratic ideal, that anybody who came, through hard work could really move ahead and the — the state welcomed talent and achievement and did not worry about disparate impact or racial proportionality.
That’s no longer true of course; during our 25-minute long interview, Heather will discuss why, along with her thoughts on:
● The Golden State’s seemingly unending Mobius Loop and inability to change its death spiral.
● The role that bilingual education plays in California’s woes.
● California’s bifurcated higher education system.
● Radical graffiti chic.
● Can California be saved before it’s too late?
And much more. Click here to listen:[audio:http://pjmedia.com/eddriscoll/files/2013/10/20131028-pjm-ED.mp3]
(25 minutes and 23 seconds long; 23.2 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 4.35 MB lo-fi edition.)
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor of City Journal magazine, and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She’s also one of several contributors, including PJ Media’s own Andrew Klavan and Victor Davis Hanson, to the new publication by City Journal magazine titled, The Beholden State: California’s Lost Promise and How to Recapture It. And Heather, thanks for stopping by today.
MS. MAC DONALD: Thanks, Ed.
MR. DRISCOLL: Heather, perhaps the best place to start is with the most open-ended question. California — how did it all go so wrong?
MS. MAC DONALD: Well, Ed, there’s still much that’s right, of course. I mean, it is one — I think it is one — I think it’s the most beautiful state in the country; as a native, I’m obviously a little prejudiced, but I think it is a exemplar of identity politics, for one thing. There’s too many institutions that are convinced that the most important thing about its residents is their racial or ethnic national origin identity and — and increasingly, of course, gender and sexual identity. And we see that playing out in university admissions, in ideas about crime and policing and immigration policy, and I think that’s a betrayal of what California used to mean, which was a real meritocratic ideal, that anybody who came, through hard work could really move ahead and the — the state welcomed talent and achievement and did not worry about disparate impact or racial proportionality.
MR. DRISCOLL: In May of 2009, I wrote a blog post titled “Golden State Mobius Loop,” in which I quoted George Will’s take on California the year before Jerry Brown replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. And then pasted in below it a quote by Ann Coulter from 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for the recall election to replace Gray Davis. And stylistics aside, they seem like they’re the same column. Why is Sacramento unable to learn from its mistakes, as it continues to augur the state further and further into the ground?
MS. MAC DONALD: Well, you obviously have very strong union politics now, and I do feel, unlike many of my fellow conservatives who I highly respect, that the demographic revolution in the state, with an increasing Hispanic population that has been driven overwhelmingly by illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America is going to be locking in a redistributionist politics there for a long time, and this last summer in California was really quite extraordinary to see one aspect of the rule of law after another dismantled by the California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown in order to ease the experience of — of illegal aliens within California on most obsessed, not just in California but across the country, with the fate of a program called Secure Communities, which should be a no-brainer for — even for the most vociferous illegal alien advocates.
It merely notifies the federal immigration authorities, today known as ICE, when an illegal alien is booked into jail and — so that ICE can then decide whether or not it wants to take custody of that illegal alien once he’s served his sentence for the possibility of deportation. And California recently passed a law that is prohibiting local jails and — and prisons from cooperating with ICE in any but the most egregious cases of — of a criminal offense committed by an illegal alien. And this just contradicts everything that we’ve learned in Los Angeles with the reign of William Bratton, who brought the concept of broken windows policing to LA, and also in New York and other cities that misdemeanor offenses, so-called low-level offenses, including theft, which is viewed as a low-level offense from the prospective of — of the anti-Secure Communities movement, those crimes matter in the health of the community, but — but now we’re basically saying, we don’t have enough illegal aliens, apparently, and we want to make sure that we hold onto those we’ve got that are committing any number of misdemeanor offenses.
MR. DRISCOLL: Speaking of California’s demographics, what is the role that bilingual education plays in California’s woes?
MS. MAC DONALD: Well, California has tried to roll back bilingual education, to the dismay of many illegal alien advocates, and that was largely a successful effort. However, even without formal bilingual education, the achievement gap between Hispanics and — on the one hand, and Blacks, and Whites and Asians on the other, is still massive and it is resulting in even greater redistribution of resources. Jerry Brown promoted and managed to get passed a law that would take taxpayer funds from relatively high-achieving middle-class schools and divert them to schools with high proportions of so-called English learners. An English learner — the naive might think that an English learner is somebody who grew up in Mexico, say, and came to this country at age 8 and is now trying to learn English, having been raised in Spanish. That’s not the case in California. English learners are often students who were born in the United States and have lived here all their lives in California, but their cognitive skills, their linguistic skills, are so low they — they come from Spanish-speaking households — that they continue to be classified as English learners into their high school years, and never get classified out.
So I think that this imperative that California feels, as well as the nation, to try to work exclusively at the low end of education at the expense of the high end, and to worry about disparate impact — it’s been very hard to raise educational standards in California. Every effort to try to increase the demands of — of high school exit exams are — are opposed on the ground that it would have a disparate impact on Hispanic students and Black students. This is insane. They are not worrying about disparate impact in China or — or Singapore or Japan or Norway, the states that are outperforming us constantly. They are trying to get their high-achievers to achieve even more spectacularly, and we are not going to be able to compete as a nation with our immigration policy that we have that favors low-skilled workers and — and with an outlook that — that says we worry about disparate impact of — of officially color-blind meritocratic policies.
MR. DRISCOLL: Heather, let’s talk a little bit about higher education. One of your essays in California: The Beholden State is titled “UC Two: Can a School Obsessed with Diversity Survive?” As that headline implies, you write that the University of California is a bifurcated school, consisting of UC-1 and UC-2. What’s the difference between those two halves of the University of California system?
MS. MAC DONALD: UC-1 is the one that is routinely paraded to alumni for more donations. It is still the high-achieving science-based university that deserves support. It deserves taxpayer’s support, it deserves alumni support, and it is still holding on through — through enormous effort and against the constant attacks of UC-2 to meritocratic standards.
UC-2, however, is the ever-growing, heavily bureaucratized, heavily red-taped, heavily diverse — diversity-obsessed part of the university that believes that the most important thing of any campus is the racial gender, the gender — the racial ratios, the gender ratios, and it is dedicated to the patently false proposition that UC remains a bigoted institution, and that somehow it is an unsafe space for women and minorities.
I don’t know if you’ve come across this nauseating rhetoric that’s prevalent on campuses today about we need to create safe spaces for minority and females and gays; this is ludicrous. There is no more safe environment in the history of humankind than a universe — an American university today, and certainly the University of California.
Nevertheless, UC-2, this diversity-obsessed component of University of California constantly creates new quarter-million dollar diversity sinecures, new vice-provosts for equity diversity and inclusion, who go around bashing the faculty for allegedly discriminating against minority and female candidates when again, the exact opposite is patently obvious every single day of the week. Every faculty search spends enormous amount of time combing the country for the same finite and inadequate source of qualified minority, and in the sciences, female PhDs to go around that are being chased by Harvard, that are being chased by Stanford. The problem is with the pipeline, but the — the conceit at UC-2 is that the problem lies with the faculty or discriminating against these highly-qualified, uh, female physics PhDs and the minority chemistry PhDs. It’s an outright lie and yet this is diverting enormous amounts of faculty tension and taxpayer dollars.
MR. DRISCOLL: In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which at least in theory was supposed to ban racial preferences. How does the University of California get around these prohibitions?
MS. MAC DONALD: Totally in bad faith. They have come up with one admissions policy after another to try to recreate the explicit racial quotas that they once had. They use something called holistic admissions, which again is something that we see across the country which purports to take into account a student’s entire background, giving extra points to things like growing up in single-parent families. These are surrogates for being a minority and they allow the school to ignore the academic qualifications of students.
There were other gambits. UCLA Law School, for instance, created a program in this specious academic subspecialty called Critical Race Theory, which is basically saying we’re going to allow minorities to study their own identity and — and claim that the law is inherently racist. And so UCLA Law School said well, we are going to have a program that will give special preference to students who express interest in Critical Race Theory thinking that this would be a automatic selection process for minority students. Well, it turns out that the white students who applied and said that they were interested in — they were all automatically rejected, even though the black students that were automatically admitted into this program had much lower test scores than they did, and LSAT scores.
This is a problem of the effort to evade the ban on racial preferences. It’s a problem, above all, for the alleged beneficiaries of racial preferences. There is a UCLA law professor, Richard Sander, who has done exquisite work on — empirical work on the effect of preferences on their beneficiaries and students who were admitted to schools for which they are not academically qualified overwhelmingly end up in the lowest part of their class and if they’ve come in expressing interest in the sciences, have much higher rates of dropping out of those majors than students who come in, including minority students, with equal qualifications to those of their peers.
So UC, in seeking to come up with various dodges to reintroduce racial preferences is really doing a disservice to the minority students who it admits. I mean, I talked to a student at UCLA; it was unbelievable. She had a combined tripartite SAT score of 1,300; that’s on a scale of 2,400 in the new tripartite scale; it’s not the usual 1,600. 1,300 — the average admit to UCLA had over a 2,000 tripartite scale. The only reason that this girl was admitted was she was Black, and as the mismatch theory that Richard Sander, uh, has — has developed that I’ve just referred to, she failed her freshman statistics, psychology statistics class, and only was allowed to continue because she retook it and got a C — a C, which just squeaked her by, but she’s a living example of the folly of this, and it goes on despite the Constitutional ban.
MR. DRISCOLL: Heather, one of the chapters you contributed to California: The Beholden State explores what you call “Radical Graffiti Chic.” It’s a tour of an art exhibit devoted to the aesthetic “joys,” if that’s the word, of spray painted graffiti. I’ve always thought of graffiti as vandalism and defacement of private property. How did we reach a point where our intellectual and aesthetics-oriented betters on the left began to take a different view?
MS. MAC DONALD: Ed, you are so out of it. I mean, graffiti has been —
MR. DRISCOLL: I lead a very sheltered life!
MS. MAC DONALD: Yeah, it’s been lionized by the elites for — for decades, but it really reached its apogee of elite hypocritical veneration with this show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles; that was the largest museum show yet dedicated to graffiti. And the hypocrisy was just utterly sickening because the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art live in Bel Air, they live in Hancock Park, they live in Brentwood and Beverley Hills, they own hedge funds in New York and Los Angeles; they would never for an instant tolerate graffiti on their own premises. Indeed, the Museum of Contemporary Art itself, if you drive along the back of it, of the Geffen Center on Alameda Drive in downtown Los Angeles, they clean over their own graffiti because they understand that this is a scourge to urban vitality. Nevertheless, this is one of those radical chic conceits that the elite hold that somehow this is the authentic expression of the ghetto, and therefore we should celebrate it. And so this show romanticized the era of New York subway defacement when people who entered those subways felt like they had been run over by a truck. The ugliness was so overwhelming, and it gave the official imprimatur to Los Angeles’ Hispanic graffiti vandals.
I talked to a lot of them; you can go to Homeboy Industries in downtown LA where people are coming and trying to get out of the gang life, and, you know, they’ll say, I wasted my high school years. I — oops — maybe I should close my door here in New York.
MR. DRISCOLL: (Laughs)
MS. MAC DONALD: We’ll hope it’s not a graffiti vandal has been hit, or maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.
[Returning to quoting former gang members she met at Homeboy Industries in LA] You know, I was on meth, I was out there every night, staying up all night, to [graffiti] tag. I was cutting school, or sleeping through my classes because I was so tired and, you know, people spend time in prison for this, and yet this is the way that the now — thank heavens former — head of — of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeffrey Deitch, thought was a way to celebrate minority culture.
There’s far better ways. Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic has started the youth organization — Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which brings classical music to inner-city kids. It’s modeled on the fabulous El Sistema program in Venezuela. If Deitch and his trustees such as Eli Broad, and I know he’s a hero to many in the conservative movement for his support of charter schools, but on this he was an ignorant and blind backer of Jeffrey Deitch and if he wants to feel like he’s a champion of minority culture, I would urge him to go talk to Gustavo Dudamel and not the graffiti vandals of downtown Los Angeles.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well if the Museum of Contemporary Art approves of graffiti as an art form, I assume they don’t mind if you crack open a can of Krylon spray paint, and add your own additions to their display, right?
MS. MAC DONALD: No, a good question. I decided to check them out on that. I tried to write some — took my little nice erasable graphite pencil out in — in the exhibit and was immediately intercepted by a guard; oh, we don’t allow writing. And this was just on the walls, it wasn’t as if I was defacing any of this so-called art, but nevertheless, even though they won’t allow it in their — in their halls, they’re selling — the gift shop sold graffiti paint that is manufactured by a — a company who specializes in spray paint for graffiti vandals, and I asked again, well, can I use this on the outside? If I buy it here, can I use it on the outside of MOCA, and the woman who was working in the — in the gift shop said oh, no, you know, you wouldn’t believe the amount of guards we’ve got patrolling this place.
So the hypocrisy is just simply stunning, and it’s astounding that it’s not so apparent that the — the trustees didn’t see it, but it just shows the desperation of the elites to feel like they are somehow participating in anti-establishment culture even as they are reaping the benefits of a stable society that respects property rights, their own property rights, you know, their — their hedge funds and their Mercedes Benz and their — their undoubtedly gated mansions in Bel Air.
MR. DRISCOLL: Heather, last question: With all of California’s bankrupt cities, with its look-the-other-way attitude towards graffiti, with its race and grievance obsessed education system, it seems like the state is hosed, as the kids like to say. Where does California go from here?
MS. MAC DONALD: Well, I am somewhat of a fatalist with the demographic changes. I think it’s going to be a increasingly divided society. As long as Silicon Valley does not give in to gender extortion — which is starting to happen; I mean, you are going to see now every tech IPO — there’s going to be the gender bean-counting and people will complain that there’s not enough females in the business or on its board. If tech — if Silicon Valley can hold out against that, and retain its meritocratic culture, that is going to still be an extraordinary hub of innovation that will attract talent. But the costs of this low — low social capital population that we’re bringing in is going to require more and more redistribution of wealth, so I don’t know.
I applaud the Republicans in California who are willing to still talk about merit. Of course, they’re all caving on immigration, so that issue is off the table. But the state is so darned beautiful, I mean, there — just you go up and down the coast, it’s just one knock-out city after another and — and Redwood forests after — after Live Oaks and Sycamores — that’s going to continue attracting people.
I don’t know. One can only hope that maybe with the hot breath of China, you know, coming up on our heels and China, as I say, is unapologetically dedicated to promoting its best and is not worried about hurting the feelings of those who can’t compete and believes that the best thing it can do for all students is hold them all to equally high standards, I just hope that California and America generally can return to a meritocratic culture before it’s — it’s too late.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been speaking with Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, one of the contributors to the new book by City Journal magazine titled The Beholden State: California’s Lost Promise and How to Recapture It. It’s available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. To visit City Journal magazine, drop by www.city-journal.org. And Heather, thank you for stopping by PJ Media.com today.
MS. MAC DONALD: Thank you so much, Ed. It’s been a real pleasure.
(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)