Editor's Note: Thanks go to Bill for accepting the challenge of explaining his California to the rest of us. As he put it in an e-mail, "I found that I was inspired by the Late Great Hunter T. and his Capitalization Thing and Gonzo journalism. I added a few Untoward Statements to offend the Political Correct. I could really get into It. In the spirit of Hunter, I Hammered Out the statistics with only a Brief Nod to the Truth.... no, actually only Art Laffer will check the details. And I Spit on the Details. No...actually, I found the stuff on Google."
April 14, 2005
A year ago, Al Chambers asked me to do a piece on California. A "Recall Election", an oddity in itself, had just thrown out our recently re-elected governor, a life-long politician, and replaced him with an Austrian bodybuilder known to millions of adolescent fans as The Terminator.
Was this a recipe for success, or just another Nut-Ball California concept, like nude self-awareness training or advocating skateboarding as an Olympic sport? "Where-so-ever California goeth," asked Al, "doth the Nation follow? Is there a California culture? Is California a state of mind or an actual place?"
"And please, Bill, nothing too scholarly or data-driven," Al warned, "Something more personal and anecdotal. Can you do this in 1000 words or less?"
Being a Californian, I naturally replied, "no problem!"
The fact is that Politics, Art, and Love are all totally in the eye of the Beholder. So I begin with this disclaimer. In 1959 going to Yale from California, in my case, from Santa Barbara, the "garden spot" of the West Coast, certainly entailed crossing some metaphorical and cultural boundaries. Not like going, say, from Montana or Wyoming, because I at least had a white shirt, a tie and a sports jacket. But that first Immersion into full-blown Preppydom, was a bit unnerving.
Prematurely serious-looking young men actually my own age wearing prehistoric Tortoiseshell Glasses, with pale complexions and rep ties were weighted down with Large Bags full of books. Expressions ranged from melancholic to supercilious. What was going on here?
At first glance all the buildings looked like Montecito's All-Saints-By-The-Sea Church. The weather couldn't make up its mind. Strange, semi-strangled accents, Primadonnas, and Dandies sporting the haberdashery of J. Press and Brooks Bros. mingled with wholesome Mid-western boys in white bucks and sweatshirts. Every Saturday night huge, Mafioso-type jocks from Chicago, wearing T-shirts in the snow, drank unfathomable quantities of beer, staggered out of the Deke House and Threw Up! Fellow students in ancient York Street greasy spoons dined on Hoagies and Gyros and other semi-digestible remnants from the Failed Civilizations of Rome and Greece. Mostly, Grease.
Above all… like, you know… where was the all-important beach? The Connecticut Turnpike ("Turnpike"?... what are we, in the Middle Ages?) an oil tank farm had entirely obliterated it. And where were the pretty girls with the white teeth and blond hair who spoke more beguilingly with their Tan Bodies than their tongues? Although their Tongues were nice too! Intensely merry fellows in small groups were singing without musical instruments? What! The guitar hadn't gotten to the East Coast? Dangerously heavy doses of culture and scholarship lurked in Sterling library with its own Gutenberg Bible and other frankly Out of Date teaching materials. People who had never been west of the Mississippi were proud of the fact!
So, yes, in a word, we Californians felt a bit different. But at eighteen everybody and every mind is flexible. I learned that people can actually read and enjoy Literary Magazines and the Wall Street Journal. In fact, everybody on Wall Street was a Yalie from Skull & Bones, except the ones who weren't, and they did all the heavy lifting. Students debated issues of the day because all political leaders and government policymakers went to Harvard, Yale or someplace in the Ivy League. The concept of Noblesse Oblige and Government Service had not yet crossed the Continent, and no serious academic accomplishments were acknowledged to have occurred on the West Coast, except maybe some nuclear science at Berkeley's grad school, but that was done by Europeans escaping the Holocaust.
The Wheelers' California
In 1959 a surprising number of these one-liners were true. California, with its population around 12 million, mostly White, had a Gross State Product (GSP) of some $58 Billion. Hollywood, aerospace, agriculture and the Navy were the biggest things going. Los Angeles was a sprawling self-preoccupied town with no real center. It swallowed up the smaller towns around it and regurgitated Suburbs and Curious Epiphanies. San Francisco was a quaint self-congratulating place of men in business suits and hats catching ferries and cable cars. Sam Spade was still following bad Molls and Gunsels through the Tenderloin with a cigarette dangling from his lip.
There was not much in between. Most capital and financial activities were controlled from the East Coast. And most big businesses were merely branches or outposts as Boston and New York themselves had been during the British Empire in the 18th century. Richard Nixon was our only politician of note, an ambitious man from nowhere. He was a loser in 1960 to the far more urbane and charismatic John Kennedy, every young person's Galahad or Charlemagne. It was Kennedy himself, as the President of the United States, who said at our graduation that now he had the best of all possible worlds: a Yale degree and a Harvard education. He meant it. It was unthinkable at that time that he might, under different circumstances, have said a Yale degree and a Stanford education.
My, how times have changed! Fast forward to 1999, the year before the deluge, before the collapse of the California technology boom. New England was in danger of becoming a Diaspora of Retirees headed to Florida and the Southwest to bake out their aging bones in the sun. Stanford's business school had stolen the lead from Harvard. Yale was frantically trying to revitalize its curriculum, and to remake New Haven as a more habitable place, copying Stanford, with a technology center. In Silicon Valley, our Venture Capitalists had replaced Tom Wolfe's Wall Street Bond Traders as the new Masters of the Universe. California was the new paradigm with each month producing a Next Real Big Thing. San Francisco and Berkeley now led the growing Biotech industry. Biotech and bioengineering promised new drugs and new parts and modalities to help us live forever. More immigrants poured in. Fashion and Form followed California. Suits gave way to blue jeans and baseball caps. Silicon Valley controlled the computer and the networks. Redmond made the bits and bytes, but California's ingenuity packaged them in Meaningful Ways that increased productivity with Large Profits dropping to the Bottom Line. One could spend a few hours trading at the computer and the rest of the day jogging, doing some Pilates, and letting the Robots or the Foreign Students do the work. California was becoming the new El Dorado once again, the new Fountain of Youth.
Tremendous creative energies had been released. Anything Was Possible. The physical landscape was changing along with the motivational and intellectual environs. Business parks become manicured "campuses" and subdivisions invaded the farmland. Golf Courses sprung from swamps and sprouted on mountaintops, always surrounded by million dollar homes. Freeways became Plaque-ridden Arteries. Attention spans truncated as the remote control, cell phones, the blog and instant buddy queues undermined Thoughtful Decision-making.
With Money comes Power, and with Power comes Respect. Ronald Reagan, a cowboy actor from Movieland, had earlier ridden tall in the saddle and, under the tutelage of our own Art Laffer, had reordered, not just our politics, but those of our allies, and even our enemy, the first Evil Empire. Our "boutique" investment banks, Hambrecht & Quist, Robertson Stephens, Montgomery Securities, Michael Milken and other Deft Rainmakers now established branches in the worn old Money Centers of the East. With their corner on the hot IPO's and junk bonds, they could wave their Fairy Wands and create not just millionaires, but Billionaires "overnight". My children's contemporaries traveled west as I had traveled east to find their fortunes and absorb the happening culture.
In the 40 years since our graduation a Tectonic Shift has occurred, a pervasive sliding of power across the wide Connecticut to the hot tubs of Marin, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Napa and Orange Counties. The image of aging Beatniks and Hippies was replaced with keenly driven Young Entrepreneurs. Hollywood hustlers were now Media Moguls. Even my wife Ingrid and I had innocently ridden an extraordinary wave, the rise of the California wine industry, not to mention the real estate boom. How had this happen, this reversal of roles?
Fast forward one more time, through that unkind gap between 1999, California's zenith year, to 2004 and the present. From 1958, our freshman year, Californians themselves had multiplied 300% to 36 million star-struck souls, surpassing New York as the most populous and prosperous state. 30% were now Hispanics, 7% Blacks, 11% Asians with Whites in a minority. Hispanics provide the labor, Blacks the prison population and Asians the science with Whites muddling through or providing the Entrepreneurial Spark. Forty per cent of Californians speak some language other than English at home! California's GSP had grown 27 times in current dollars or 700% in inflation-adjusted dollars to $1.4 Trillion, rising on a stand-alone basis to become perhaps the world's fifth largest economy, bigger than France or the UK, and 5 times the Russian economy.
And yet, with all these Enormous Changes, an unsettling Malaise and new Vulnerabilities have fallen over the land. Our educational system is in shambles, our fiscal condition eviscerated, our roads crumbling and our overburdened businesses looking for more hospitable shores. So many "dot.com bombs" had exploded during the Bubble Time. Even the "real" companies saw their stock collapse. Cisco Systems dropped from 80 to 10, Intel from 75 to 15, Apple from 70 to 14. The telecoms were down 80-90%. Our own Bank of America had been taken over by rubes and upstarts from Charlotte, North Carolina. Our Hambrecht, our Robertson, and our Montgomery, the Holy Trinity, were subsumed by Eastern combines. Our daughter's new New England friends are suddenly shuttling home to Mom and Dad, their West Coast adventures good only for telling stories.
How had these failures occurred? How had the public sector collapsed with the private sector? The Astonishing Ineptitude of our former Governor, Gray Davis, a decent, but colorless man…the "replaced one"… and our own Dysfunctional Statehouse seemed to be the root cause. The Grandiose Puffery, the wishful and foggy economics of the Democrats equated spending money with getting results. Budgets increases were locked in. Powerbrokers had appointed hundreds of commissions and hired their friends as commissioners and lobbyists. Each of these Appointees and their Consultants had their Own Interests in mind. They said we must respect diversity, "ebonics" and endangered species and not tell little Johnny that he might be better off at vocational school. They said we must translate their manifold reports and regulations into Spanish, Chinese and Tagalog. No Idiot should be left behind. No Heinous Criminal should be short-changed his Rights.
So we got reports and regulations where China got bridges. We got prisons and Native American owned, but Vegas run casinos, where China got schools, new roads, airports and business parks. Buffaloed by deregulation and the demands of a profligate constituency, Governor Davis' government moved into Paralysis. Budget projections were based on the same trees Growing to the Sky with assumptions of continuing lush Capital Gains and other transactional taxes. When the bubble burst, the Red Ink began its Gleeful Hemorrhage.
What is the basis of this boom and bust mentality? Is it the California historical imperative playing itself out in a series of Gold Rushes or a form of blindness from staring into the blue Pacific and Dreaming the California Dream, whatever that may be? Is a bi-polar existence the price one must pay for intuitive leaps and quantum progress? Would crusty Vermonters and sturdy Iowans, content in their homogeneity, trade their lifestyles and exigencies for ours? Maybe! Even after all these difficulties, a 2003 Harris Poll confirmed that California remains the first place people would like to live.
Still this bursting of the technology bubble has reordered the shape of things once again, and into this chasm of despair and uncertainty, the people of California have behaved on cue. We have found a new Messiah, a new leader, a man of Heroic Dimensions, to lead us through the Wilderness. Look at his State of the State address. This is a man, like Reagan, who sees complex issues as simple clarities. He will get the special interest "Elephants" out of the Budget; he will reward good teachers and fire the bad; he will have independent judges reform our tortured political districts; he will fire the redundant commissions and cast out the Sycophants; he will rebuild our roads and energy sources. He will restore our job growth and give us prescription drug discount cards. For the environmentally skeptical, he has already set aside 25 million acres in the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. He will add to the number of Days of Sunshine per year.
This time, as in our past, our hero is a man who built himself from the ground up, with barbells and an English grammar book. So much for a Yale Education! Stand back girlie-man, Arnold, the Governator, is gonna Pump Us Up once again. And once California is Fully Restored, he may be coming to a White House near you!
Bill & Ingrid Wheeler
Bill's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.