As we know from media reports, California is a fiscal mess. The fabled “Golden Land,” in Joan Didion’s phrase, is broke, currently running a projected $10 billion dollar deficit. Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown — despite tough campaign rhetoric — recently punted on the state budget, bowing to pressure from the state’s powerful public sector unions, and seems to believe — like President Obama — that higher tax rates will solve the problem. According to the Economist, the governor cut some spending and attempted to extend some temporary taxes, the latter failing without Republican legislative support. Brown lately signed legislation taxing Internet commerce. This brilliant move will only hasten the brain drain to neighboring states. California’s 11.8% unemployment rate is already the second highest in the nation. And Governor Brown recently signed California’s version of the Dream Act, supporting education aid to illegal aliens. The Sacramento Bee tells us that beginning in 2012 California will close “70 of 278 state parks.” As on the national scene, the bad news seems to refresh itself daily.
And the Golden State is a cultural mess. Los Angeles — thanks to illegal immigration– now resembles the capital of a polyglot third world country. Beautiful San Francisco is fast becoming unlivable from a combination of heavy nanny-state regulation of its housing sector, and a homeless problem constantly dealt with by instituting more bad panaceas. The state legislature lately passed a bill calling for the teaching of “gay history” in California schools. This educational multicultural muddle mandates the expense for ordering new textbooks. The Berkeley City Council recently debated the merits of adding sex-change operations to the city employee medical insurance plan, and tabled the idea for future consideration. Berkeley City employees remain trapped in their gender until further notice.
Last fall California voters sent Barbara Boxer back to the U.S. Senate for a fourth term and, more interestingly, reelected Brown governor, 28 years after his last tenure in the office. The question is why in such economically perilous times did these two Democratic dinosaurs survive extinction, one closing the circle of a long progressive career. The pundits have certainly explained it ad nauseam: it seems that 1960s idealistic liberalism is tightly woven into the state’s political fabric. But it’s almost as if the California electorate momentarily experienced a collective acid flashback last Election Day. For me, well, it brought back memories.
The indulgence of following an historically apt metaphor of first traveling to the state on the fool’s errand of prospecting for gold in the mountains, left me a college student in Northern California in the mid-1970s, when Governor Brown first served. At the time California was in myriad ways a sunny place (Didion’s “Golden Land” again), the very air full of optimism (not to mention the sweet stink of marijuana) even in the Ford and Carter years, and able to smilingly absorb the cultural weirdness that seemed to permeate everyday life. As a student, I found it more than geographically far-removed from the upstate New York where I grew up. People wore different clothes, ate strange food (I’d never eaten an avocado until I lived in California; alfalfa sprouts? Forget-about-it), and listened to different music: On the East Coast it was Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones; in Northern California it was the Grateful Dead and whatever else was musically emanating from the distinctly countercultural Bay Area.
It was a politically crazy place. Patty Hearst was famously kidnapped. There were two attempts on the life of President Gerald Ford while he made separate California visits. San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White. Congressman Leo Ryan was gunned down in Jonestown, Guyana, the site of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple mass suicide in 1979.
The small two year “community college” that I attended was in Quincy, a town of 5,000 people in the Sierra Nevada. Most of the students were hip kids who had grown up in the Bay Area in the late 1960s-early ’70s, which was a rather different experience than mine in exurban New York. These were kids who, if they didn’t march in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, might have witnessed them. I heard stories of cutting school to hear Janis Joplin or the Jefferson Airplane play for free in Golden Gate Park on a weekday afternoon. Kids in high school took LSD every weekend as a recreational activity.
At the time a college education in the community college or California State University systems was free to state residents (the University of California system required tuition). I got a student loan to pay the roughly $1,000 tuition (it seems such a paltry sum today) for my first year until I achieved residency. In the end I never went on to a four year school for a bachelor’s degree, and I regret this because in the 1970s getting a college education in California was as easy as plucking an orange from a tree. Today that same educational system is in extreme fiscal distress.
Considering that these were the Carter years, I was relatively prosperous thanks to part time jobs, mostly in restaurants back in the day when they fed the help for free. I was a dishwasher, then a waiter, and then spent a summer working for the U.S. Forest Service. These jobs weren’t especially lucrative, but they kept a few bucks in my pocket. And things were cheap: rent, gas and groceries, a movie date, a six-pack of beer. I lived in a furnished trailer with giant Ponderosa pines in the backyard that rented for just $90 per month. California wasn’t the bread basket of the nation, but it was the produce section of the supermarket.
Meanwhile in Sacramento, Governor Brown lived an ascetic life. He refused to inhabit his predecessor Ronald Reagan’s recently constructed governor’s mansion, instead renting a small apartment near the state house. He eschewed the convenience of an official limousine, preferring to drive his Plymouth Satellite around town. “Governor Moonbeam” aside, Brown — especially in his 1975-’79 first term — was very much a fiscal conservative. California at one point enjoyed a $5 billion dollar surplus, which in 2011 dollars is impressive. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 giving Californians property tax relief eroded that surplus. And yes, Brown was known for some wacky environmental ideas and judicial appointments (does anyone remember Rose Bird?), but it’s almost as if he started out center-right early in his career, and from then on moved progressively left. That’s it: I started out left and moved right, and Brown started right and moved left. At some point in the last thirty years we passed each other.
Jerry and I have come a long way. And I still have hair.