The Slow, Agonizing Decline of California

In August, Rolling Stone magazine wrote a piece entitled, “Jerry Brown’s Tough-Love California Miracle”. The article, written by Tim Dickinson, opened with a piece showing the 75-year-old California governor surrounded by a ray of light. The picture bears a certain resemblance to a painting one might find in a Catholic Church, with the light of God radiating out from a saint. They hailed his leadership as a “global model”.

Brown was not the first in his family to run California, nor is this the first time he has held that job. His father, Pat Brown, was California’s governor in the 1960s before being defeated by Ronald Reagan. When Reagan moved on to the national stage, Brown ran for governor and was elected in 1974. To put this in perspective, Barack Obama was twelve years old when Brown took office. Being long in the tooth should not disqualify a man from holding a political position, but Brown has little record to show for it. His most recent tenure in office is far from the success as portrayed in Rolling Stone.

The economic situation in the Golden State is a mess. Once cost of living is considered, nearly one forth of California residents live beneath the poverty line. The state’s unemployment rate is among the nations highest. The exact number varies from report to report, however the San Diego Union Tribune placed the figure at a staggering 18.3 percent (the statistic was among “Californians who want to work full time”. This may have included those working part time jobs). That number may be an overestimate, but even the lowest statistics put the state’s unemployment rate at nearly 9 percent. Moreover, the state government is drowning in astounding levels of debt. The state’s Budget Crisis Task Force stated in their report that the state’s debt was at least $167 billion. The report also asserted that the high end of the range for the state’s debt was around $335 billion. That is greater than the combined wealth of the six richest people on earth.

A National Review article written in response to the Rolling Stone one brought up an interesting question. How is California in a state of economic disaster? This question is genuinely a perplexing one. In Hollywood, California is home to the epicenter of the entertainment business. Silicon Valley is the hub of the huge and growing technology sector. The state has several of America’s top universities and many of its most successful companies. California has prosperous farms, a highly successful wine industry, incredible natural resources, and a tourism sector covering everywhere from Yosemite National Park to Beverly Hills. By all accounts, making a state as blessed with natural and manmade assets work financially should be relatively easy. And yet the state struggles.

Jerry Brown is up for reelection in 2014. Most pundits have said this race will be his for the taking. I wouldn’t be so sure. He could very well be upstaged by a well run Republican challenge or even a centrist Democrat in the primaries. Recall that in 2009, nobody believed Chris Christie had a chance in deep blue New Jersey. A similar result, although unlikely, is a nagging possibility threatening to bring the saint like picture that many have of Jerry Brown crashing down.