Sunday, July 12, 2009

California dreams and IOUs

The LA Times' Patt Morrison recently interviewed Kevin Starr about his new book, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, which I have not yet read. I have read (and greatly enjoyed) Starr's other books.

In the interview, there is this exchange:

From a historian's viewpoint, is California manageable now?

In our public life, we're on the verge of being a failed state, and no state has failed in the history of this country. In Sacramento, this dysfunction, this end of politics -- the people in my book, the good old boys and girls, they may have stayed up late at the Hotel Senator and drunk Maker's Mark, and some of them may have consorted with loose women occasionally, but when it came down to it, they understood the art of the deal, they understood politics as the art of the possible.

I am just appalled by [what's going on now]. I think we're playing a game of brinkmanship that's very dangerous. Why is it 50 or 60 years ago we had the capacity to lay down the physical, psychological, cultural, public infrastructure of a global mega-state, and today we are on the verge of being Honduras?

This discussion is now standard. What is different now, in comparison to the good old days when politics worked better? (To be sure, today's LA Times includes a review of A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.)

The political economy that I keep coming back to is Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty discussion. Low voter turnout is now a fact of life. It's sybling is low levels of interest or due diligence. It is safe to say that most Californians pay more attention to their choice of next refrigerator (or fill in the blank) than to what their political representatives are up to. We call it "rational ignorance", which sums it up nicely.

Affluence is wonderful, but it has this problem. Unless we happen to be policy wonks (or interest group members), we pay ever less attention. Politicians have more wealth to play with as well as more freedom to mess up.

Is there a fix? No one knows whether the current crisis (or recurrent crises) can provide any sort of antidote.