For much of the past century California was the envy of the continent, not just for what nature had made but for what civil society had created: speedy freeways, well-supported schools, the world's best public university system, public works that made the desert bloom. Not any more. California's public works and social services are crumbling, and public education has plunged from the top to near-bottom in nationwide measures. How could the American dream go so wrong so fast? Originally published in 1998, Peter Schrag's view of California seems as applicable as ever.
In his new preface to the 2004 edition, Schrag updates the California scene and considers the fallout from such political earthquakes as the 2003 recall election.
California once ranked among the top 10 states in annual per-pupil spending, but over the past 30 years its ranking plummeted to 41st. In this compelling overview of the state's postwar history, Schrag (Mind Control) chronicles the Golden State's descent from "both model and magnet for the nationin its economic opportunities, its social outlook, and its high-quality public services" to a place of ethnic unrest, unraveling communities and dwindling social services. Schrag heaps particular criticism on California's unruly initiative-driven political system, whose "Byzantine intricacy" perpetuates public disaffection and alienation. The turning point, Schrag contends, was Proposition 13, a people's initiative passed in 1978 in response to wildly escalating property taxes, which "set the stage for the entire Reagan era, and became both fact and symbol of a radical shift in governmental priorities, public attitudes, and social relationships that is as nearly fundamental in American politics as the changes brought by the New Deal." Cogently argued and meticulously researched, Schrag's "urgent cautionary tale" is, if not dispassionate, astonishingly clear in its explanation of how California arrived at its present situation, how it will affect (and indeed has affected) the rest of the country and how it may yet climb back up to more community-driven, dynamic and munificent political terrain.