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California Rising


I spent the weekend in California, hanging out with my children and visiting old friends. I was in both Los Angeles and San Francisco and picked up on the current mood from both ends of the State--at least based on my small sample of conversations. The consensus is that California is a great place to live, but a fiscal and political mess.

The deficit is staggering (over 25 billion and rising). The governor has been terminated politically speaking and can't get the politicians or the public to go along with his well-intended proposals to fix the problems. Most of the money that is around is tied up and pre-allocated by a system of arcane initiatives that make the democratic process look and feel like a straightjacket. I am told that the famously inept and unworkable politics of Sacramento look more like "politics by paralysis". On top of everything, the unions (most notably the Teacher's Union and other special interest groups) continue to resist compromise, defend the status quo and dig their heels in at all costs.

Didn't we learn anything from watching GM go under? It is not out of the question that we may witness a government default of unprecedented proportions unless the elected officials start putting people and policies ahead of ego-based power trips.

In many ways, California has always been an 'early adapter' in terms of social and technological trends. It has also been early (if not first) in having its share of the kinds of problems we are now facing everywhere. From intractable criminality (for example, subcultures of gangs, overcrowded prisons and a stalled judicial system) and environmental deterioration (water shortages, air pollution and oil spills) to corruption (prime example, the Enron Energy Rip-Off of the Century) and now economic paralysis (that is, the inability to pass a budget, the debt, the shrinking tax base), California is the "canary in the mineshaft" for the USA....and the bird is barely breathing!

I lived and worked in the "Great State of California" for many years. It has some of the best and brightest people anywhere in the world. Its diversity is unmatched and will be either its biggest asset or the lynchpin for its demise. It is bigger than most countries and is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty and resources.

But when a government becomes so unworkable or the politicians so insensitive to their underlying moral imperative to lead in the best interests of the people, the population disconnects from the government and we destroy the very means by which a democracy can correct its mistakes and institute meaningful changes. We only have to look at countries like Argentina or the Ukraine to see what can happen when political cynicism trumps political possibilities and promises.

The idea of holding a new Constitutional Convention is gathering momentum and some are even (again) proposing to break up the state into three states. Not so long ago, such a notion would be absurd. Today it starts to be a real possibility unless the politics of diversity can be made to work. If there is a chance to create a 'new California', then a whole lot of mature and committed citizens will need to make politics a priority and become involved.

From 1980 to 1983, I was a member of the California Commission on Aging. Even then, I argued that we were turning older people into political constituents lobbying against their children for scarce resources. Today this condition is exacerbated and the older population is part of the gridlock fighting against change while complaining that they aren't satisfied with the status quo.

I suggest that in any situation where significant change is required it must be led (or at least empowered) by the 'older' segment of society, otherwise the 'new generation' grows into the same cultural condition that preceded them. And at the end of the day, the vision of the young is co-opted by the social and cultural reality they are committed to changing.

I think that the term 'crisis' is often overused and we've become numb to it in many ways. It is a term that should have us stop whatever we are doing. It is a term that calls for action. It is a term that provokes immediacy and urgency. It calls forth both danger and opportunity and reminds us that we have a choice.

California is in the middle of a crisis. The question for each of us is "Who am I?" in the face of this crisis. Are we spectators or are we participants? The choice is ours.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.