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The tarnished Golden State

California America's High-Stakes Experiment Peter Schrag University of California Press: 330 pp., $24.95

April 02, 2006|Kevin Roderick | Kevin Roderick, editor of the website LA Observed, is the author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb" and "Wilshire Boulevard: The Grand Concourse of Los Angeles."

JOAN DIDION once said of her native California that "things had better work here, because this is where we run out of continent." Perhaps that's why she prefers New York these days. In the introduction to his latest book probing our dysfunctional nation-state, Peter Schrag poses no fewer than 25 questions that pick at sometimes uncomfortable truths about life on the edge of the Pacific. It's that kind of book -- and the kind of times we Californians live in.

On immigration, for instance, "now that the state's future depends in large measure on the children of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans and Pakistanis," Schrag asks, are "the voters, who remain disproportionately Anglo white, willing to provide the schools, universities and other services that they provided when the beneficiaries were the children of Iowans, Kansans and Nebraskans?" (Short answer: Not so far.) Was the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger "the end of the old order in California's politics and perhaps in the nation's?" (Probably not, but stay tuned.) And finally, since California has become so culturally fractured, "is it governable at all?" (We shall see.)

After a lengthy career examining the California experiment in thoughtful ways, the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee (where he remains a columnist) is the right observer to be asking these questions. Schrag pours his considered wisdom into what must be regarded as a follow-up to "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future," his 1998 study that threw a sloshing pail of ice water on the state's image as a leader in education and in building a prosperous 21st century.

He is not the dispassionate journalist-analyst; writing in the Nation, he called the popular recall of Gov. Gray Davis "tragedy, farce and a lot more." His take in "California: America's High-Stakes Experiment" is that of a disappointed liberal, a believer in the Golden State's vaunted postwar promise who has watched the dream drift out of reach.

Schrag blames such impassioned but poorly thought-out political spasms as Proposition 13, which 28 years later is still shortchanging what were once national-class public schools: "California can't grow great trying to be like Mississippi." Term limits and the related culling of Sacramento's expert cadre, he argues, drove off the visionaries and problem solvers, leaving behind party hacks whose specialized knowledge is in keeping their meal tickets in office. The result, he fumes, is a legislature that has "become ever more like one of those primitive animals with small brains and oversized reproductive organs."

Schrag is faithful to his evidence, wherever it takes him -- and he offers mountains of it. He muscles up his analysis with long-forgotten studies. Along the way, he stops to appreciate what we have become in the two generations since Wallace Stegner pinned on California the sobriquet "America, only more so." Sure, we all have witnessed the phenomenon, yet it is worth taking a moment to marvel over it. California is home to 1 in 8 Americans, more people than live in Canada or Scandinavia. It's the world's fifth- or sixth-largest economy, depending on what kind of year France is having. The ports at San Pedro and Long Beach together are the world's third-busiest, receiving 40% of U.S. imports.

Demographically, California has uneasily absorbed the richest, wildest mix imaginable. Culturally, the state nurtures Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, artists of startling range and such first-generation literary voices as Maxine Hong Kingston, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Khaled Hosseini. California, Schrag offers, has become the "great political and social laboratory, the site of the ultimate test of whether a society so large and diverse could successfully integrate the diversity into an effective modern democracy in a postindustrial age. No nation had ever tried anything like it."

Inevitably, California's experience as the new immigration capital of the country runs through every chapter. How could it not? This is a state with most of the nation's foreign-born and where non-Latino whites make up less than half the population but 70% of the voters. "Los Angeles would be a dull place without immigrants," says Dov Charney, the Montreal-born bad-boy owner of American Apparel, the Los Angeles casual-wear maker. Without the society of seasonal workers who pick cotton and tomatoes and then move onto the next field, Fresno area Democratic Assemblyman Juan Arambula says, many impoverished Central Valley farm towns would "blow away like tumbleweed."

Yet, Schrag acknowledges, illegal immigrants stress public services -- $340 million a year for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services alone -- and create resentment.

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