The death foretold in the early months of the economic crisis was that of high finance. It has turned out instead to be California’s. Like the larger recession, the crack-up of the country’s wealthiest, most populous state has been long in the making. After many years of disguising its financial frailty with housing booms, California seems poised to collapse.
So begins a grim essay on the condition of the not-so Golden State. It's by Nikil Saval, and appears in n+1.
The essay isn't great; ideas run together, prose gets sloppy, analysis is dubious. And then there's this lame effort to channel Oscar Wilde:
By 2003, one could read Joan Didion claiming that California spent more on its prisons than on education. It wasn’t true, but it was — like much of what Didion writes — more true than the truth.
But. Still. For all its flaws, Saval's essay paints a disturbing picture. Over two or even three generations, politics has failed in California -- politics, mind you, both conservative and, despite Saval's liberalism, liberal. Tough choices have not been made; realities have not been faced.
The picture is disturbing for two reasons. First, because California has for so long served as the wet dream of American optimism, the extant proof that every fantasy is achievable. From hippie poets to aerospace engineers, from dot-commers to movie stars, California was the land of over-the-top-success.
Heck, once Jed Clampett struck black gold, where did he go next?
So the collapse of California is a terrifying blow to the optimistic, imaginative, confident worldview that has done so much to shape America. This leads into the second reason it is disturbing: because, while the rest of the country hasn't been as over-the-top as California, we have all shared a little bit of its exuberance. All our states have been, to varying degrees, overly confident; all our different governments have pandered, and put off hard choices, and relied on crazy schemes to support themselves (build prisons! run a lottery!). We have tolerated and even encouraged a freakishly bipolar political climate in which thoughtful moderates are punished and crazed extremists rewarded - not because it is good government, but because it is entertaining, and we have secretly believed that government was good for nothing more.
Even now, we all believe that somehow, magically, the future will be brighter than any sober forecaster would promise.
In other words, we are all Californians now.