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Archive for 2011



Reforming “Reform,” Limited Only by Imagination

Monday, December 26th, 2011

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.