California Quickly Becoming a “Failed State”

I do not “rant” often, but kindly allow me this one indulgence. California is rapidly becoming a “failed state.” The beauty of the American federal system is that, through the individual states, the nation is allowed to conduct a variety of public policy experiments across 50 territories, a series of petri dishes for us to collectively examine what works and what doesn’t. In theory, the idea is that through experimentation, we may unearth policies that work in other states or even across the country. In practice, however, unfortunately the State of California takes the idea of democracy way too far. It is a failed experiment, and runs the risk of pushing California into the status of a failed state.

While I remain optimistic about California in the long-run, the immediate decision to break ground on high-speed rail is highly disturbing. At issue is money (who will fund this mega-billion dollar project?), but also eminent domain. Governments in the U.S. cannot reclaim land for “the greater good” because our lawmakers have elected to protect private property — this is why Acela trains in the mega-crowded Northeast Corridor are only 25% faster than their slower, local counterparts. Private property owners could squash plans to build efficiently and, in the process, waste public funds which come from taxpayers’ wallets. The same problem will happen with California’s attempt to link it’s three biggest cities. Someone will claim NIMBY, and we will all suffer.

Over the past 5-10 years, public goods and services have sagged in California. Parks are closing down or being run by other entities. Services decline in quality. State budgets rise. Overall income to tax reduces. It doesn’t take an economist or third-grader to realize that the California of 2020 will not look like the California of the 1980s. The “Californian Dream” has changed and is potentially a harbinger for the future strength of the “American Dream.” None of this is really “news” to those who follow it. I guess the question is, “What can we do?” Silicon Valley is in its own bubble, but issues like this will have negative downstream effects. I don’t know what the solution is, whether it is civil or not, whether it happens soon or when its way too late, but somewhere, in the back of my mind, this is where I hope our collective social networks and places to gather and share ideas (such on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Reddit, etc.) push us to a future where we can quickly “represent” ourselves and votes in as frictionless a way that we “like” or “unfollow” things as a signal of our sentiment. This is why I root for companies like Facebook, to turn our identities into a currency for representation, so that the wisdom of the crowd produces a better system of governance, and while it won’t be perfect, I’d guarantee it will be better than what we have now.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus