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Paradise lost : California's experience, America's future /
Peter Schrag.
New York : New Press, c1998.
344 p. ; 24 cm.
More Details
New York : New Press, c1998.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [328]-331) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Peter Schrag was for nineteen years the editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, for which he still writes a weekly column.
This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter

Chapter One


In the generation immediately following World War II, and to some extent even before, California was widely regarded as both model and magnet for the nation--in its economic opportunities, its social outlook, and its high-quality public services and institutions. With a nearly free and universally accessible system of public higher education, a well-supported public school system, an ambitious agenda of public works projects--in irrigation and flood control; in highway construction and park development--and a wide array of social services and human rights guarantees that had no parallel in any other state, California seemed to have an optimism about its population, possibilities, and future whose largest flaw was the very excess of expectations on which it rested.

    Now, forty years on, having come through the sharp recession of the early 1990s, the state, with a robust but substantially different economic base, is again at the world's economic and technological frontiers: in electronics and software, in biotechnology and a vast array of other scientifically based industries, in foreign trade, and in the convergence of the old Hollywood and the new computer-based graphics and design ventures that have grown up around it. It is even enjoying a revival of the aerospace industries that were devastated by the recession and defense cutbacks of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    But California, even with a large burst of new postrecession revenue, is no longer the progressive model in its public institutions and services, or in its social ethic, that it once was--had indeed ceased to hold that position long before the last recession began. California's schools, which, thirty years ago, had been among the most generously funded in the nation, are now in the bottom quarter among the states in virtually every major indicator--in their physical condition, in public funding, in test scores--closer in most of them to Mississippi than to New York or Connecticut or New Jersey. The state, which has almost doubled in population since the early 1960s, has built some twenty new prisons in the past two decades. But it has not opened one new campus of the University of California for nearly three decades. Its once-celebrated freeway system is now rated as among the most dilapidated road networks in the country. Many of its public libraries operate on reduced hours, and some have closed altogether. The state and county parks charge hefty admission fees. The state's social benefits, once among the nation's most generous, have been cut, and cut again, and then cut again. And what had once been a tuition-free college and university system, while still among the world's great public educational institutions, struggles for funds and charges as much as every other state university system, and in some cases more.

    In 1994, Californians, who, after World War II had reveled in their own growth and appeared to welcome every comer, voted overwhelmingly to exclude all illegal-alien children from their public schools. Two years later, they voted to prohibit every form of race- or gender-based affirmative action in public employment, contracting, and education. In 1997, California's Industrial Welfare Commission, a body appointed by the governor, abolished a rule dating back to the Progressive Era that required most nonfarm employers to pay overtime to any worker who worked more than an eight-hour day. In the meantime, the gap between the state's upper-income groups and its poorest workers is growing even more rapidly than the national average, not so much because the affluent are making so much more (though they are making more) but because the incomes of the bottom ten percent of the working population have fallen so much further. Thus, as the state begins to celebrate its sesquicentennial--the 150th anniversary of the gold rush of 1848-49; admission to the Union in 1850--California's social policies and governmental structures can be seen more readily as an urgent cautionary tale, and as a high-stakes test for a nation that will increasingly be faced with similar challenges--indeed already is--than as a shining standard.

The most obvious question arising here is as complex in the answering as it is short in the asking: What happened? Why now, why in California, why in this form? What happened in the decades between the ebullient 'fifties and 'sixties and the anxious 'eighties and 'nineties? What occurred particularly in the interplay between the monumental demographic changes of a California where whites will soon be a minority among other minorities and the state's political evolution? What's the relationship between those changes, the enactment of the radical tax limits in Proposition 13 in 1978, the orgy of other voter initiatives that followed in its wake and that have gripped California for the better part of a generation, and the erosion of public services that they brought with them? Can a system that was created, and that flourished, for one kind of population maintain (or regain) its optimism and vitality for another? Put another way, are California's once-splendid public services and its promise of social equity sputtering and coughing because they became overloaded with social burdens? Or is the problem caused by some combination of hostility and indifference on the part of a body of voters that isn't sure it wants to carry this kind of load for those kinds of people? Californians seem to have regained a little of their optimism, but many of the effects of the changes of the past generation will last long into the future. Could it all have been negotiated to better ends with better leadership?

    Some twenty years have passed since the passage of California's Proposition 13, which set in motion not merely the holy crusade against taxes in which much of the country now seems irretrievably stuck, but a condition of permanent neopopulism in California, and to some extent elsewhere, for which there is no real precedent, even in the Progressive Era of the early years of the twentieth century. During the two decades since the passage of 13, California has been in nearly constant revolt against representative government. During that period, voters have passed one initiative after another--tax limitation initiatives; initiatives capping state and local spending; measures imposing specified minimum spending formulas for schools; term limits for legislative and statewide offices; three-strikes sentencing laws; land conservation measures; the measures abolishing affirmative action in public education, contracting, and employment, and seeking to deny public schooling and other services to illegal immigrants, and dozens of others--each of them mandating or prohibiting major programs and policies, or imposing supermajority requirements. Collectively, those initiatives sharply circumscribed the authority and discretion of the legislature, county boards of supervisors, school boards, city councils, and the courts. In addition, countless reform measures have emanated from the legislature that were themselves spurred by the plebiscitary populism that has marked California politics in the past generation. Because of the constraints those initiatives impose on governmental discretion both at the state and local levels, California, in the words of one policy analyst, can be prosperous "and still be in a budget squeeze." At a time when responsibility for welfare and other major federal programs is being shifted down to the states and local governments, those constraints have left many of California's counties, where the ultimate burden of serving needy people resides, in particularly tough cirumstances.

    The passage of Proposition 13 serves as a convenient way of dividing the post-World War II era in California between that postwar period of optimism, with its huge investment in public infrastructure and its strong commitment to the development of quality education systems and other public services, and a generation of declining confidence and shrinking public services. Just as significantly, the state's latter-day populism, and the squeeze on taxes and public services it brought, occurred precisely during the period when the state was undergoing those demographic changes: from a society that thought of itself (and in many ways was) overwhelmingly white and middle class to one in which whites will soon be just another minority and where Hispanics, Asians, and blacks already constitute a sizeable majority in school enrollment and in the use of many other public services.

    It is hard to prove that those demographic changes produced the political reaction and social neglect. There are other sources of stress in crime, the emergence of crack and other virulent street drugs, and the pressure that increased health costs have put on public budgets. And there are other states--Texas, Florida, New York--that have also been heavily affected by new waves of non-European immigrants. But no state has lived with such extraordinary expectations of social perfection or been subject to such large gaps between what its people once thought they ought, almost as a matter of right, to have, and the burdens they are willing to bear to get it. Those who now disproportionately depend on public services and who suffer the consequences when they're reduced are those new California immigrants and their children. Meanwhile, those who dominate the voter rolls are still white and middle class.

    Because of the semipermanent revolt against government that Proposition 13 helped set in motion, and the growing use of the initiative that accompanied it, what had been designed (in 1911) as a Progressive Era instrument whereby "the people" could from time to time check the excesses of a state government that was then dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad and a handful of other powerful interest groups has increasingly become the prevailing instrumentality of government itself. In the past two decades, the initiative has more often been used by well-organized political and economic entities, on the left and the right, and by incumbent politicians, from the governor down, than by anything that can be called "the people." It is still "the people" that vote on the initiatives that appear on the ballot. But it is those interest groups, backed by media consultants, direct mail specialists, pollsters, and others, that usually finance the costly signature drives, running into the millions, to get measures on the ballot, and the advertising campaigns that put them over--or that block the measures of opponents.


Paradoxically, the further the initiative process goes, the more difficult and problematic effective citizenship becomes. California has not just seen a sharp decline in the quality of public services--education, public parks, highways, water projects--that were once regarded as models for the nation. It has also seen the evolution of an increasingly unmanageable and incomprehensible structure of state and local government that exacerbates the same public disaffection and alienation that have brought it on, thus creating a vicious cycle of reform and frustration.

    Each measure, because it further reduces governmental discretion, and because it moves control further from the public--from local to state government, from the legislature to the constitution, from simple majorities to supermajorities--makes it even harder to write budgets, respond to changing needs, and set reasonable priorities. And since many of those measures have irrationally--though sometimes necessarily--divided authority between state and local governments and among scores of different agencies, the opportunity for buck passing is nearly unlimited. To cite the most glaring example, because Proposition 13 specifically (and ironically) transferred a great deal of effective spending authority from local governments to the state, the state legislature, itself increasingly constrained by constitutional limits and mandates, allocates funds for local schools. But local school boards have, at least in theory, and, again, within the constraints of their own limits, the authority for spending it.

    Thus, when funds run low or programs have to be cut, it is nearly impossible to determine whether accountability rests with the state's elected politicians for not providing enough or with the local board for spending it wastefully. Something similar is true for county governments. And since spending is so hopelessly tangled in formulas that have been written into the constitution--directly by measures like Proposition 98, which established mandatory minimum state funding requirements for the schools; indirectly by a three-strikes initiative that threatens to devour a large part of the state's discretionary funds in escalating prison costs--the system often runs largely on autopilot, beyond the control of any elected official. The whole fiscal system, in the view of Elizabeth Hill, California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, has become "dysfunctional." It "does not work together to achieve the public's goals."

    Those problems have been compounded by the passage of the nation's most stringent legislative term limits, Proposition 140 in 1990, under which no member of the assembly may serve more than three two-year terms in a lifetime and no state senator more than two four-year terms, and which sharply cut the legislative budget and the professional staff that had once made California a national model as well. California does very little of consequence without excess.

    Even before term limits passed, the state legislature had begun to lose a good deal of its luster. Beginning in the early 1980s, it had been afflicted by a series of scandals and embarrassments, including convictions for bribery and extortion that sent a number of its members to jail. More broadly, its effectiveness and stature visibly deteriorated, partly because of the increased complexity and diversity of the state; partly because of the fiscal constraints of Proposition 13 and other constitutional restrictions on legislative discretion and accountability, and the increased partisanship they brought with them; partly because of the increasing cost of campaigns and the political "arms races" they fostered; and partly because of the wider incivility in all public life. But rather than bringing on the "Citizen Legislature" promised by some of its advocates, term limits has generated even more partisanship and incivility among members, a growing inability to compromise, a legislative leadership with greatly reduced powers, and a sharp decline in legislators' comprehension of, and interest in, the complexities of the issues that they are supposed to deal with. When major fiscal committees handling billions of dollars or trying to deal with the intricacies of insurance regulation, school finance, welfare policy, or water law are chaired by people who have been there for no more than six months; when the speaker of the assembly will necessarily be someone with four years' experience or less, and when the professional staff is as thin as it has become, the quality of the work is almost certain to decline.

    In 1997, after all assembly members first elected in 1990 or before were already "termed out," a federal trial judge overturned part of the law, ruling that its lifetime ban is unnecessary to achieve its prime objective, which is to enhance rotation in office and reduce the power of incumbency. Yet even if the decision is ultimately sustained by higher courts, it's likely that there will be some form of legislative term limits in California, and almost certain that the sharp cuts in professional staffs, which were not challenged in federal court, will remain unchanged. The net effect in both cases is increased power for interest group lobbyists and agency bureaucrats, who are under no term-limit restraints and who will increasingly become the major source of legislative information. What is likely to increase even more in the face of legislative deprofessionalization--as in some respects it already has--is the power of chance, of error, of gridlock, and of nonfeasance.

But that's only the beginning of this story, which is as much about process as about outcome, as much about unexpected consequences as about those that were intended. Because Proposition 13 froze property values at 1975 levels and only allows them to be reassessed when title changes hands, the owners of identical parcels--say, two neighboring homes of precisely equal value--can pay vastly different amounts in property taxes, and often do. The same is true for business property, something that puts an increasingly large burden on new business and business development, rewards speculative land-holding, and discourages new investment. And because the state has allowed local jurisdictions to keep the sales tax but has shifted a large chunk of property tax revenues (already curtailed by Proposition 13) to pay for its constutionally mandated school support, many jurisdictions prefer sales-tax paying businesses--shopping malls particularly--to new manufacturing plants and other industry, even though the latter usually generate better jobs. The one pays for itself in new tax revenues, the other does not. Thus, in many communities, the developer of a shopping center has often gotten warmer treatment from zoning boards, planning commissions, and city councils than has the new assembly plant. In California, it's called the fiscalization of land use, and its skewing effect on patterns of development appears to be considerable. Although California's economy has grown vigorously in recent years, a lot of people in the business community believe it might grow more vigorously and rationally if the nexus between economic development and improved local public services were more apparent.

    Despite these and other distortions, however, Proposition 13 and its progeny remain sacrosanct, icons of a public policy that no politician dare attack. For a whole generation of middle-aged and elderly home owners, the escalating property taxes of the mid-1970s were a searing experience similar to the impact of the Depression on an older generation, and Proposition 13 akin to the New Deal, a measure credited with preserving the homes and economic security of millions of people. In the 1996 election, the voters, rather than easing property tax restrictions, made them even tighter, requiring votes of property owners (in one case) or of the general electorate (in others) for any assessment increasing property-based fees or other exactions. In California, no taxation without representation has been replaced by no taxation without a vote--in many cases without a two-thirds vote--of the people.

    This book focuses on this neopopulism, its roots in the state's changing political economy and demographics--white, affluent, elderly taxpapers who vote, as against the younger, preponderantly black and Latino people who use the services but vote in much lower numbers--and its consequences in public services, many of them services used primarily by children. The most obvious of those consequences is the relative slide, already mentioned above, in California school spending from sixth or eighth in the nation per pupil to fortieth; the crowded classrooms, the unmaintained buildings with leaking roofs, falling ceiling tiles, and unusable toilets; the layoffs of school counselors, librarians, and nurses; and the reductions in course offerings in everything from art to zoology. Writer Jonathan Kozol found rotting school facilities in the inner cities; California has them in the suburbs as well.

    But the consequences of the state's political shifts also include the ironic decision of the financially strapped University of California to offer across-the-board early retirement to thousands of professors whose salaries it could no longer afford, among them some of the same stars that it had so proudly recruited a generation before. They include the reduced hours and resources of the public libraries; the deteriorating highways; and the increasing reliance on fees to run public parks, pools, and other amenities that had once been virtually free (and the broader anticommunitarian fee ethic that comes with them). And they are reflected in the various efforts of a growing number of people, through gated communities and the creation of new secessionist "cities," to withdraw from the larger commonweal altogether. Some of these things have also occurred, and are still occuring, in other states, but in none has the difference between before and after been anywhere near as great as it has been in the Golden State.

    Inevitably, the story also touches on the roles of the principal players in this complex drama, from the California Progressives who led the drive to write the initiative into the state constitution, to Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, the master builder and exemplar of California's public dynamism of the 1950s and 1960s. The cast also includes Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, the antitax organizers, often called "antitax crusaders" in the media, who invented Proposition 13 and whose professional campaign managers created new political technologies in the effort to get it passed. And it includes people like Gerald Meral of the Planning and Conservation League, who adapted them for environmental, medical, and other causes generally described as liberal.

    Together the men and women who refined the uses of the initiative and made it the centerpiece of latter-day California politics have brought into existence a whole new set of political practices and organizations. On the one hand, there is a large network of consulting and initiative marketing firms that not merely work for groups seeking to pass ballot measures (or to block them) but sometimes test market issues for their feasibility to generate funds through direct mailings, and then shop for a group to back them. On the other hand, California has witnessed the creation of semi-private legislative practices whereby an environmental organization will package hundreds of locally backed projects into a statewide bond measure--acquisition of park land, for example, or designation of wildlife refuges--in return for financial and other support from local sponsor-groups in getting the measure on the ballot and getting it passed.

    All of this, of course, has had--and continues to have--broader national influence and implications. Just as Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann began the national tax revolt of the late 1970s and helped point the way for the presidential policies of Ronald Reagan, so California's hyperpopulism, its off-again, on-again forays into immigrant exclusion and its growing penchant for autopilot solutions, have resonated at the federal level--in the push for a balanced budget amendment and for a constitutional amendment requiring congressional supermajorities to increase public revenues; in term limits; in the drive for more restrictive immigration policies and against race- and gender-based affirmative action; in flat tax proposals; in mandatory judge-proof criminal sentencing laws, and in the wider neopopulist climate that underlies them. These things did not all originate in California, but they have generally found their most powerful lauching platforms there.

    From its start in America in the 1890s, that populism has had both its dark and its affirmative, optimistic sides. Both have been opportunities for some of the nation's most influential politicians: from William Jennings Bryan, Robert M. LaFollette, and Hiram Johnson to Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan--as well as those, like Governor Pete Wilson of California, who, though they are not of it and are temperamentally unsuited for it, have nonetheless exploited it. Proposition 187, which passed in 1994, was hardly the first instance when California tried to have the cake of its cheap immigrant labor and shut those workers and their families out at the same time. Californians excluded Asians from a whole range of economic and educational rights--in issuing business licenses, in the right to attend school with whites, and in a variety of other areas--and the Progressives were hardly immune to such temptations. Less than three years after California's Progressive revolt emerged triumphant in the election of 1910, Hiram Johnson, who had pushed scores of reforms, including tougher utility and railroad regulation, direct democracy through the initiative and referendum, and women's suffrage, gave in to the pressure of the Asiatic Exclusion League and signed the Alien Land Law that denied Japanese aliens the right to own land in California. That dark side has always been inseparably interwoven with the more hopeful elements.

    But California's latter-day populism nonetheless tends to be a different kind of political impulse, not because it is primarily a populism of the right whose prime objective is the enervation of government itself, but because it is not particularly interested in civic engagement or in increasing the effectiveness of the citizen in government at all. It is not primarily a movement to cleanse and regain control of the affairs of state through governmental institutions more responsive to the popular will. It is often more like a parody of the Newtonian system of checks and balances written by the framers into the U.S. Constitution, a mechanical device that's supposed to run more or less by itself and spares the individual the bother and complexities of any sort of political engagement.

    Woven through that California-style populism is the seemingly irresistible myth of excessive taxation. When he came into the governor's office in 1991, Pete Wilson was forced by recession and a looming $14 billion state deficit--and by the need to deal with a Democatic legislature--to balance spending cuts with a set of temporary state tax increases. But he took a terrible pummeling for those tax increases, particularly from members of his own party. He has pushed, with considerable success, for major tax cuts ever since. Those cuts have disproportionately favored corporations and higher-income taxpayers. Along the way, he continues to insist--and most voters continue to believe--that Californians are overtaxed compared to people in neighboring states, despite the fact that as a percentage of personal income, Californians' taxes are now at just about the national average, and that they pay a smaller share of their personal income in state and local taxes than all but one of their Western neighbors. (Something similar is true, of course, for the myth that this country is overtaxed as a nation.) It is hard to imagine that those arguments would be made with as much vehemence if the beneficiaries of the public services that those taxes support were believed to be the same people, or the same sort of people, as those who go to the polls and vote, or if more voters had someone living at home who is under eighteen.

    But the new populism also reflects (and reinforces) the declining stature of, and respect for, virtually all major public institutions and establishments, from the judicial system and the media, to the universities, to the ideal of commonweal itself. We appear to be on the verge of a time when unedited information and unmediated media--the talk show, the computer news group and bulletin board--will radically change (and perhaps undermine) traditional politics and social relations. For the first time in history, the unfounded rumor, the fragment of suspicion, the wildly false "fact," is something not just shared over the back fence but spread in megabytes and milliseconds, without editing, review, or check, to an audience of millions--peasants with pitchforks on the Internet.

    It's impossible to determine exactly how all those forces contribute to the new populism; they are evolving too fast and reacting on one another in too many ways. But there's not much doubt that all have contributed to the anticommunitarian, market-oriented ethic of our politics. The recent history of the California initiative system has demonstrated the essential irony of that process: that as the public trusts the system less and less, it becomes ever more susceptible to untested quick-fix remedies that, instead of resolving the problems of the moment, limit public choice and make long-term solutions even more difficult. But it has hardly deterred it.


This book attempts to look at those forces, and at how they have shaped California in the past forty years, and particularly at the period since the beginning of the tax revolt in the mid-1970s. It is divided into five major sections. The first two deal with the before-and-after what of this story; the next two with the historical how of the past forty years; the last with the future-oriented question of what now:

* A section briefly describing California's heyday of post-World War II optimism, itself probably founded on excessive expectations, that peaked in the era of Pat Brown--roughly 1958-66--and an examination of the demographic, economic, and political stresses that so quickly began to undermine it.

* A section on the causes of the radical tax revolt that's associated with Proposition 13, and its consequences in California's ability to manage its affairs. Although 13 has become its enduring symbol, the attempt to mandate fiscal policies has run through scores of other ballot measures, some of them (in reaction to the tax limits) mandating certain kinds of spending, most further restricting either revenues or spending.

* An elaboration of the history, dynamics, and broader implications of California's orgy of plebiscites, as well as a discussion of the major measures of the past two decades, and their consequences both in substantive policy and in the increasingly constrained exercise of policy choices imposed on representative government in California.

* A brief coda examining the possibilities for a new political integration and a revitalized social ethic in California, describing the contrary forces pushing even further toward a market-based governmental ethic, and appraising the national implications and the stakes that ride on the outcome of the conflict between them.

    Those subjects, which deal both with the politics and policy consequences of the changes in California, are inextricably interrelated. Certain threads and social motifs--the impact of California's new immigrants, for example, and the complex effects of California's contorted tax and fiscal systems--run through all of them and will therefore recur in different ways in different parts of the book. For nearly a generation, there has been increasing focus among scholars, politicians, and journalists on the growing gaps in California--ethnic, social, economic--between those who exercise political power and the larger population, and particularly those who are the most immediate users of its public services. What has gotten little discussion is the dynamic of the plebiscitary process itself. While it's ad hoc in nature--each measure is decided by voters on its own apparent merits without much reference to the wider context--it has a larger cumulative effect through which statewide majorities restrict the powers of local political majorities, which are often nonwhite. Almost by definition, it is also a device of impulse that tends to be only marginally respectful of minority rights or interests, and that lends itself to demagogic wedge campaigns designed to boost voter turnout for other political purposes.

    Place the new political demographics alongside the increasing use of the initiative in setting social policy, and you therefore have an extraordinarily complex set of questions that bear both on the majority's ability to govern and on the rights of the state's (and the nation's) growing social and political minorities. They are loaded with implications for the future of an increasingly diverse American society.

    Making the story even more complicated are the unintended consequences of the plebiscitary process, and particularly the growing confusion of government functions that makes it increasingly difficult for anyone outside of government (and often even for those inside) to know who's accountable for what. The voters who overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13 were certainly trying to reduce their residential property taxes. Almost assuredly they were not at the same time trying to shift the political balance of power further from local government toward the state. Yet that was what they did. Neither were they explicitly trying to reduce services to the new immigrants who, even then, constituted a substantial share of the state's school enrollment. The only poll on the issue (taken more than a year after the fact) indicated that Proposition 13 carried among all ethnic groups except blacks; the polls showed it carrying narrowly among Hispanics.

    Yet it's hard to imagine Proposition 13 passing if school financing and its benefits had still been perceived in the same terms as they had been in the 1950s, when their enrollment was overwhelmingly white. According to one respected tax economist, the very attempt to equalize funding between have and have-not school districts, ordered by the state supreme court in the early and mid-1970s, fatally weakened support for high local school taxes and thus helped make Proposition 13 possible. If that theory is correct, it's another striking illustration of the power of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned reform. It's also a clear sign that people have always been willing to pay more if the money is spent close to home.

    What seems equally clear is that while the initiative has frequently been used as an instrument both against government and against minorities of various descriptions, it's nearly impossible to try consistently to define the new populism in purely ideological terms--as just (for example) a right-wing phenomenon, even though on individual issues it often is. In November 1996, the same voters who passed yet another stringent tax limitation measure also balloted overwhelmingly to raise the state's minimum wage and legalize the medical use of marijuana. And they came within a hair of restoring higher marginal tax brackets for upper-income tax payers. The ad hoc nature of the initiative process tends to elude anything resembling a consistent pursuit of policy. At the same time, the process is certainly one that, over time, reflects the class and economic impulses of those who use it, and that has reinforced the already sizeable economic and social gaps between California's voters and its larger (nonvoting) population.

This is primarily a journalist's book, not a work of social science. It comes from intense observation and analysis, spanning more than a generation, of developments in what may well be the democratic world's most fascinating political community. The observations have included conversations with most--if not indeed all--of the major public figures in that community: politicians and community leaders at all levels, among them three governors, a former governor, and countless would-be governors; scholars, social activists, and hundreds of representatives of every major interest group: from the bar, from business, from environmental and health organizations, from public employee and other labor groups, from a broad range of minority and ethnic groups, from the universities, the community colleges, and the public schools, and from county welfare offices and public libraries, not to mention the taxpayer organizations, the professional policy analysts, the lobbyists, and the political consultants. And since most of those conversations, backed by thousands of reports and studies and countless follow-up interviews, were conducted from what may well be the best single vantage point in the state--the editorial board of one of the state's major newspapers, as well the major state capital newspaper--they surely qualify, at the very least, as that first rough cut of history that journalism modestly claims for itself.

    Given the complexity of the issues in California and the rapid way that event follows event, history's first cut may turn out to be very rough indeed. Yet the changes that have occurred--in government, in public services, in public outlook--are stark and dramatic. And the questions they raise for the nation as a whole are equally stark. Joan Didion was echoing historian Frederick Jackson Turner's classic invocation of the frontier as the crucial influence in American democracy when she declared a generation ago that things had better work in California because it is there that we run out of continent. But that has to be accompanied by another, equally portentous--and much more urban--wish: Things had better work here, where the new American society is first coming into full view, because if it fails here, it may never work anywhere else either. California is America's most important test for that emerging society, and so far the outcome of that test remains very much in doubt.

Copyright © 1998 Peter Schrag. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1998-01-19:
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 nation‘in 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. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-01-01:
For almost 150 years, California has beckoned Americans to follow their dreams to its golden shores, and millions have succumbed to the call. Now, however, the gilt is flaking and the sheen is fading as Californians come to terms with the diminished levels of services and crumbling superstructure resulting from the tax revolt that spawned Proposition 13 and succeeding tax-related ballot issues. Schrag (visiting scholar, intergovernmental studies, Univ. of California, Berkeley), a former editor of the Sacramento Bee, has written a thorough and thoughtful consideration of the effect that "government by plebiscite" has had in California. He describes the history of the progressive-era philosophy behind the ballot initiative, then carefully examines the ever-increasing use of this method to enact legislation in the Golden State and describes in detail its ultimate effect, with many possible national implications. Written in plain language with a well-documented text, this book can be appreciated by both scholars and lay readers. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.‘Jill Ortner, SUNY at Buffalo (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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Unpaid Annotation
In the years after World War II, California, always regarded as an experiment for the American future, became an encouraging model for the nation. It was admired and envied for the quality of its education system, its environment, and its progressive social outlook. However, beginning with the passage of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978, and continuing through a barrage of voter initiatives, the state has pursued a determined course of retrenchment and reaction, sending it tumbling to the bottom of the nation's "quality of life" rankings. In Paradise Lost, Peter Schrag examines the relationship between the politics of that retrenchment and the great demographic changes of recent decades. His book makes a powerful case for reinvigorating our traditional structures of representative government against the increasing power of a "populism" that is often disdainful of minority rights and interests. It shows that California is still a test for the nation, and a frightening indicator of our society's readiness to assimilate and serve its new citizens.
Table of Contents
Preface to the 2004 Paperback Editionp. ix
Sources and Acknowledgmentsp. 1
Introductionp. 5
Altered Statep. 25
Golden Momentp. 27
Good-Bye El Doradop. 63
Mississippicationp. 127
The Spirit of 13p. 129
March of the Plebiscitesp. 188
The Next Americap. 257
Notesp. 284
Bibliographyp. 328
Indexp. 332
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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