Reforming “Reform,” Limited Only by Imagination


As we head into the New Year, your jaded old Calbuzzards will be taking well-earned time to overeat, swill booze and laze around in sweats. [editor’s note: isn’t that what you do anyway?] So we thought we’d let you hear from a bright young writer, analyst and loyal reader who (go figure) has actual hope for the future.

By Patrick Atwater
Special to Calbuzz

For the past few years, my life has been (perhaps too) consumed by one question: How can we reform California? From Compton to Sutter’s Mill, with ample Kogi tacos and Ventura avocado orchards in between, I chased that question, guided by nothing more than Kevin Starr’s Homeric history of the state.

Of course, while running around California from the progressive circles of Santa Monica to behind the Orange Curtain, I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t think our state needs reform.  I’ve heard “reform” used to mean greater use of the initiative process and I’ve heard it reference checks on the perceived excesses of direct democracy.  I’ve heard it used to describe creating a part-time legislature and I’ve heard it used to move in the other direction by abolishing term limits.

So when we say “reform,” what actually do we mean?  Like the youth-led protests sweeping the globe, many of us are certain that something is deeply awry in our society, but we struggle to locate the precise problem.  It’s a question that has acquired new urgency far beyond California: nations across the Western World face a host of deep structural issues that demand “reform.”

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, a leading consultancy, average total debt in ten developed nations rose from 200% of GDP in 1995 to 300% in 2008.  Youth unemployment tops 40% in Spain and ranges in the double digits for most of the developed world.  And through it all, our political leaders can only seem to bicker across a yawning ideological divide. Over the summer, the credit rating of the United States of America was actually downgraded because of “political brinksmanship.”

Mounting debt, grinding gridlock and fading opportunity?  Sounds all too familiar.  From Washington to Athens, what we’re seeing might best be called the Californication of the Western World — a growing uncertainty about what the future holds.  When you look at these facts, it’s easy to see why an incredible 90% of Millennials – my generation — believes the 20th century social contract has deteriorated.

Growing up, like many, I was told that if you work hard, if you do the right things, you’ll have a good life – a story intimately connected to America’s dream of a better life in the new world.  This story acquired a special resonance in California, as tales of gold-paved streams, incredible IPOs for Silicon Valley startups, and Hollywood images of a sun-soaked paradise have circled the globe.

Yet today that dream of boundless opportunity is more myth than reality.  As a Coro Fellow, I had the privilege to work with students at the Los Angeles Education Partnership in some of Los Angeles’ poorest communities.  Through hard work and dedication, these kids beat the odds to graduate and go on to top tier schools like Yale.  One student captured their testament to the human spirit better than I ever could: “I refuse to be a statistic.”

Yet inspiring though these stories are, the broader picture is bleak.  Only about six in 10 black and Latino California high school students  graduate high school in California, compared to roughly nine in 10 for white and Asian Californians.  Our crisis has exposed deep fractures in the social contract that defines Western societies and demands that we engage our state’s crisis at a foundational level: What does it mean to be a Californian today?

California stands as a paradox – the most diverse society in human history but with a majority that was actually born here. Yet across 7,000 local jurisdictions, with populations ranging from 500 to more than 13 million, the question facing Californians is the same: Will we be a collection of tribes scrambling for power or a community united by our common future?

Of course, putting these words on a page is easy.  The challenge is to actually repair our fraying social contract.  A challenge made all the more pressing considering today’s harsh realities: nearly 20% of my generation is unemployed.  (Not to mention all the folks that worked hard, went to college and now punch the clock at Starbucks to make ends meet.)

For those that have a job, U.S. real median personal income – what the average American can actually buy with what they earn –  slipped this past decade. And with college tuition and healthcare costs persistently outpacing inflation, we’re left with nagging questions about our financial future: like how on earth is one supposed to plan for their kids’ education or keep their parents healthy in old age?

So how can we build a society that makes good on California’s promise to leave life better for the next generation?

That last question cuts to the heart of the issue.  We in the reform community love to toss out fancy phrases like “rethinking governance for the 21st Century” and we get deep into the weeds on arcane policy changes.  Yet the challenge we face is simultaneously much simpler and infinitely more complex — in a way that arguing over whether term limits should be 12 or 14 years simply fails to capture.

Californians need to figure out how to live together.  Governor Brown has laid the groundwork for addressing that challenge, adding a much needed splash of reality to Sacramento’s politics and demonstrating a deep understanding of California’s endemic conditions.  Yet why not do more?  Why not build a new social contract that actually reflects our increasingly globalized and technologically connected reality?

When you think about it, this pioneering attitude couldn’t be more Californian. The Western World took out huge debts in the run-up to this crisis and we’re still dealing with the consequences of de-leveraging.  Yet we live in the land of Hollywood blockbusters and rocket ships, of gigantic water projects and electronic wizardry – the greatest collection of dreamers humanity has ever known.

Our species is far from realizing its potential, and California is still the greatest place on earth for unleashing it.  So to offer one last bit of (hopefully) humble advice for our state’s reform movement: remember that we choose how we react to the current onslaught of grim statistics.

Let us choose to be Californians, and allow the boldness of our solutions to be limited only by our imaginations.

Patrick Atwater is the author of A New California Dream: Reconciling the Paradoxes of America’s Golden State.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar Vince Boston says:

    I am an age 58 Decline-to-State Native Californian. All this “remake California and the social contract” blather emerges everytime the economy goes into the crapper. Things eventually recover, and then the Great Unwashed Public Mass of Voters goes right back to Not Giving A Damn, and the “reformers” go back to earnestly chattering amongst themselves…until the next downturn.

    My old Irish grandfather (a lifelong Democratic-voting factory worker) used to snort:
    “Freedom of speech? Religious and cultural tolerance? Don’t make me laugh, boyo ! Just find me even ONE Irishman who got on the boat-to-America because he was going to be just as starving and poor in America as he was in Ireland, but at least in America he could stand on the streetcorner and rant-and-rave at the powers-that-be without being beaten, and go to Mass whenever he wanted. “America” is all about the money…honey….and always had been.”

    That, and ONLY that, is why the downtrodden losers from all over the globe will do ANYTHING to get here….not our so-called “values”, and “multi-cultural diversity”, “tolerance”, “democratic principles”, “good government”……blah,blah,blah.

    So I say to readers of this blog: So tell why “this time it’s different” ? Tell me why “The Human Comedy”, this particular time, is NOT going to endlessly repeat itself, just as it has for the past 10,000 years? And all this “reform” stuff will go away just as soon as “the next boom (i.e. bubble)” get’s going?

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Though not as old as your old Irish grandfather, I’m somewhat older than you–and a native Californian to boot! Unlike Pat, I remember when that was a rarity.

    But, to answer your question, I look at my college history studies. What I read and what I noticed was exactly what you describe: cycles. Will and Ariel Durant document it quite well in their 11-volume Story of Civilization. The downtrodden get kicked down the ladder. Eventually they revolt. They promise a new social contract. Things even out for a while. People figure out how to work the reformed system to their own advantage. And we start the whole thing over again.

    So, are we doomed to repeat this cycle for another 10,000 years?

    Like Pat, I remain hopeful. Certainly we’ve demonstrated a talent as a species for fighting the last war. And an incredible capacity for denial. But we’ve also shown unmatched inventiveness and flexibility. Not everything we try works. But we rarely stop trying. Sometimes we try to recreate the small slice of the past we believe is all of human history. I think of this every time I see residents who vow to rebuild their homes in river flood plains. Our personal time horizons can be so insignificant and so limiting. But not all of us are so bound. And those who are not are capable of amazing things. That’s what gives me hope.

    Most of us are no longer bound by place as we were in past cycles. Modern travel and communications have spread knowledge–cultural and scientific–in ways that were never possible. This has given us new understanding, perspectives, and tools. It offers new ways to look at things. These may lead to new ways to do things.

    Because there’s one other thing I noticed about those historical cycles: They rarely started from the same place. Even before most people could read, they had oral history. They had accumulated knowledge and the technologies of their day that survived, even if only in isolated places. With our global knowledge base, we have even more opportunity to build on what we’ve done right, and what we see didn’t work.

    Many people are in the process of taking the first step toward that. They are admitting there’s a problem. A big one. Some, like Pat, are progressing to the next necessary step, looking for a new solution. These are fundamental steps in every voyage of discovery, and in every field of human endeavor. And people are taking them all over the world. I find that encouraging.

    And though I hate to disagree with your sainted grandpa’s memory, my grandad came here to escape oppression. He came here for freedom. He did achieve financial security beyond what he could have done in the old country. But I believe the values that drew him here also allowed him to do that. They aren’t separate. One builds the foundation for the other. A strictly stratified class society stifles opportunity for anybody not in the upper crust. It always has. So the values of equality, democracy, and good government you deride actually create the opportunities you say people value.

    So say Bah Humbug all you like, I’ll put my money on new solutions any day.

  3. avatar sbj says:

    Nice piece, Patrick!

  4. avatar Cath says:

    Great article. Don’t be discouraged by criticism. Unless we pull together with genuine compassion it won’t work. Harder said than actually done since genuine disagreements exist

    As a immediate first step, we need debt relief for students, homeowners, and consumers. It’s all funny money at this point.

    I might substitute community service for students since it benefits them back. However given the pillaging Wall Street has done here in the US and the Banks across the world, I wouldn’t extend it past them. Moralizing goes out the door in face of disaster.

  5. avatar sqrjn says:

    { }

    I’m assuming this is semantic neutral part 1 of a 2 parter?

  6. avatar tegrat says:

    Some solutions are already out there in the real world, no need to reinvent the wheel. The solution to our health care crisis is abundantly clear. You don’t even have to go outside our country to see it, just look at the VA which treats a very needy population at a fraction of the cost of our nationwide health care “system” (a market driven free for all where unprofitable clients are shunted to the publicly funded safety net). California’s Univeral Health Care Act (SB 810) will once again go to the Appropriations Committee for a vote on January 17. The outcome is uncertain, but even if it passes here it is almost certain to fail a full vote provided leadership even brings it to the floor.
    It is unfortunate but probable that our collective misery will have to deepen further before any real reforms occur. I applaud anyone who cares to at least examine the possibilities.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.