The controversial US Supreme Court decision (pdf) that could ultimately force California to release tens of thousands of prison inmates is more than a shockingly broad exercise of judicial power.
It is also an official declaration by the highest constitutional authority in the land that California meets the strict test of state failure: it can no longer enforce the law within its frontiers.
Let there be no mistake: when you produce so many criminals that you can't afford to lock them up, you are a failed state.
Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point. Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters. Your schools aren't educating enough of your kids to make an honest living. Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away. Your management systems must be fouled and confused to the max for you to create something so dysfunctional, so wildly beyond your means, that the Supreme Court of the United States (wisely or foolishly is another question) starts to micromanage your jails.
California used to be the glory of this country, the dream by the sea, the magic state. Now it produces so many criminals it can't pay to keep them locked up.
This is partly a blue social model thing. California's public unions are sucking the state dry — like a parasite killing its host. Too many Californians buy the ideology of entitlement best described by that great Louisiana prophet of the blue social model Huey Long: "If you aren't getting something for nothing, you're not getting your fair share."
The federal government's generation of serial failures in migration policy is also to blame. More exposed to illegal migration than any other state, California has been overwhelmed by both legal and illegal immigrants. Immigrants are a net plus for the United States, but neither the federal nor the state governments have been willing to provide the appropriate policy framework to manage this flow — and to cope with the consequences.
Some of the fault is judicial. California's prison blues partly reflect micromanagement by a host of addled judges who among them have imposed a conflicting and overlapping set of requirements that increase costs to the point where overall conditions decline. One judge imposes a health mandate; another throws in some food and nutrition requirements; somebody else issues an order for exercise, education, visitation rights or what have you. In the end the system becomes unmanageable and unsustainable and in yet another fatheaded intervention the Supreme Court supports a lower court order for mass prisoner release. Judicial intervention in the prison system needs to be safe, legal and rare: at the moment it seems to be none of the above.
It's partly about corporate flight. Destructive and shortsighted tax policies have literally driven big corporations out of the state. For the last five years, Southern California has been losing roughly one Fortune 500 corporate headquarters a year, while the state as a whole has lost four such companies in the last twelve months in an accelerating flight to greener pastures in less-dysfunctional states like Texas, Colorado and Virginia.
Meanwhile, California has the one of the worst business climates in the country: in three widely-cited rankings, California came 49th or 50th. High taxes, rigid regulations, bribery, unresponsive bureaucrats: California has it all.
It has one of the most expensive and least effective governments in the country. California has the country's 6th highest total tax burden and yet also the largest budget deficit ($25.4bn projected for FY2012 — that's about $687 per capita). North Dakota, by contrast, balances its budget every year, educates its kids better, is creating new jobs and taxes its residents at less than half California's level.
California's school expenditures bear no relationship to results. In 2008, although California spent more on public schools than any other state in the country and more per pupil than many, its students ranked 49th (out of 51, including DC) in reading achievement, 48th in math. States like South Dakota spent much less per pupil and got much better results.
The former paradise of the automobile can't even get car policy right; it has the country's second highest gas prices and some of the worst traffic in the United States.
Californians weren't always this incompetent. In fact, California invented the modern American dream. The brilliant banker A.P. Giannini pioneered the mass marketed thirty year mortgage. Under his leadership the Bank of America perfected the growth engine that drove this whole country for sixty years. The bank lent money through the municipal bond market to build the infrastructure for new subdivisions. It lent money to real estate developers to build housing developments and lent money to consumers for mortgages and to buy cars. The tax revenues from the higher land values in the subdivisions payed for the bonds and the schools. The jobs provided by a favorable combination of a good business climate and government support (highway infrastructure, defense spending and industrial investment originally related to World War Two and continuing through the Cold War) put money in consumers' pockets to pay for it all. Hollywood (also originally banked by Giannini) sprinkled it with magic dust, and the world gazed in awe.
I'll never forget my own first trip to Golden California. After I graduated from Pundit High, my parents gave me the use of our beat up old Volkswagon Beetle and a gas credit card for a month. Following a series of misadventures that I hope will NOT see the light of day after all these years, we crossed the California state line and like generations of easterners before us we were awed and stunned by the beauty and wealth of the natural environment and the progressive utopia rising on every side. Gas was 18 cents a gallon; artichokes cost a nickel. The freeways sparkled in the sun; the roses that grew in the median strips were lush and well kept. The LA Times was one of the world's great papers; the California university system was the wonder of the world.
That glory has gone. Californians pay more to and get less from their state government than anybody else in the civilized world. The progressive meltdown of every important and valuable institution in the state is paralleled by the collapse of California's place in our national cultural life. San Francisco once looked to be the literary capital of the Pacific; today it is a more provincial, less interesting city than it was fifty years ago. Lost Angeles is a parody of itself, a city to escape rather than a goal to be reached.
California politics and analysis is mostly a blame game these days. When you go to failing states outside the US, you are often treated to long and impassioned arguments among intellectuals about where it all went wrong. Arabs, Argentines, Russians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Mexicans and, lately, the Japanese sit up into the wee hours about when precisely the key bad decisions were taken — when the point of no return was passed.
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