A California public relations disaster

The Golden State seen as a hopeless Third World failure

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 5, 2009 2:50PM (EDT)

As California meltdown stories go, Paul Harris' lengthy piece in the UK Guardian this weekend, "Will California Become America's First Failed State?" is a doozy. The excellent Richard's Real Estate and Urban Economics Blog highlights perhaps the most grievous paragraph.

Yet California is currently cutting healthcare, slashing the "Healthy Families" program that helped an estimated one million of its poorest children. Los Angeles now has a poverty rate of 20 percent. Other cities across the state, such as Fresno and Modesto, have jobless rates that rival Detroit's. In order to pass its state budget, California's government has had to agree to a deal that cuts billions of dollars from education and sacks 60,000 state employees. Some teachers have launched a hunger strike in protest. California's education system has become so poor so quickly that it is now effectively failing its future workforce. The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43 percent to 30 percent between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California's schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation. Its government-issued bonds have been ranked just above "junk".

And there's plenty more where that came from. For most of his piece, Harris adopts the horrified, yet concerned, attitude of someone picking his way through through third-world squalor. But then about three-quarters of the way through, Harris abruptly changes tone and starts highlighting potential for positive change.

California has long been an incubator of fresh ideas, many of which spread across the country. If America emerges from its crisis a greener, more economically and politically responsible nation, it is likely that renewal will have begun here. The clues to California's salvation -- and perhaps even the country as a whole -- are starting to emerge.

The sudden shift in direction is jarring -- unadulterated doom is followed by a bout of hopefulness that seems to have little connection with the thesis. Failed states generally don't burst into new blooms.

But even stranger: How is it possible to write a story about California's woes, and never mention Proposition 13, or California's government-by-initiative system, or even begin to investigate the question of whether Californians are over or under-taxed? That's the real baffler.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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