America, I see you flailing —and failing —to respond to this pandemic. Why don’t you just let California handle it?
No joke. In normal times, you wouldn’t want Californians running anything. While we are strong at creating culture and technology, our elected leaders typically struggle to manage schools, housing, and traffic. In our personal lives, Californians famously flout the rules to go our own way.
But in emergencies, Californians transform into very different people — calm, competent, and cooperative. You’ve seen it during the novel coronavirus crisis, as we move faster, more aggressively, and with clearer intent than national leaders in Washington.
We’ve moved so fast, in fact, that other states have followed our lead. The strategies of social distancing and shelter-at-home began in the Bay Area, were adopted statewide, and have since been copied from Louisiana to West Virginia, and from Illinois to New York. And our state and local leaders have consistently provided the public with timely and accurate information, which cannot be said for the White House and federal agencies.
While the president has lashed out at critics, our governor has pragmatically avoided blaming others. Despite our reputation as anti-business, our state has speedily lifted regulations on everything from commercial trucking to construction.
It’s also worth noting that the $2.2 billion national bailout bill — was negotiated by two Californians, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi and Bel Air’s Steve Mnuchin.
Why are Californians such masters of disaster? Because we’ve had more practice with calamities than other Americans.
Disasters are in our state’s DNA. The California we know today was not formed by any deliberate plan, but through responses to our never-ending emergencies. Epic 1860s floods begat the waterworks that made the state’s rapid growth possible. 1870s economic depressions inspired our current constitution.
California Has Honed Its Emergency Response Through Earthquakes, Fires, Droughts, Mudslides, and Riots
And our progressive government is an accidental product of our biggest disaster. In 1906, an earthquake and fire destroyed what was then our biggest, richest and most populous city, San Francisco. In the aftermath, survivors did more than rebuild the city. They constructed a new modern government for California, with new agencies and commissions, university campuses, and a system for civil defense and emergencies. This early modernization of government and marshaling of expertise turned California into an early capital of American technocracy.
Since then, California has honed its emergency response through earthquakes, fires, droughts, mudslides, and riots. And we’ve come to take bipartisan pride in our preparedness.
“California has excellent emergency response infrastructure and experience,” Rob Stutzman, a former top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, tweeted recently. “One might say, it’s an excellent deep state of expertise and ability.”
Our emergency infrastructure can wither. In routine times, California’s dysfunctional budget process produced foolish cutbacks, including the shuttering of some public health labs and mobile hospitals that would be useful now. But in emergencies, California ignores its fiscal rules and ramps up, with the help of a public highly attuned to disaster.
It also helps that our businesses are prepared. Facebook had a cache of masks to donate now, because it had purchased them to prepare for our routinely massive wildfires.
Right Now, There’s No Time to Think About the Yin of Our Highly Flexible Hyper-Competence
Our state government, often given to flights of fancy, has been disciplined and practical. While the federal government bashes the Chinese government, California secures medical supplies from China. While the Trump administration and other states pursue the overturning of Obamacare at the U.S. Supreme Court, California re-opens health insurance enrollment. While governors in Texas and Florida refused to tap emergency funds, our state provides emergency supports for workers, seniors, the homeless, and renters.
Californians require that intensely pragmatic guidance. While officials in other states questioned whether Gov. Newsom was moving too fast in COVID-19 response, criticism inside California is about whether the state is moving fast enough.
Indeed, Newsom and the state have often trailed our cities and counties in enacting new measures; San Francisco, a place that knows its own history, declared a COVID-19 emergency way back on February 25, before it had any confirmed cases.
In times of emergency, some Californians—including your columnist—have wondered why we can’t move this quickly, and behave this responsibly, in normal times. Why does it take an earthquake or an epidemic to suspend all the budget formulas and insane environmental regulations that make the act of building something such a costly endeavor?
But right now, there’s no time to think about the yin of our highly flexible hyper-competence in emergencies and the yang of our dysfunctional governance the rest of the time.
I, for one, must restock my family’s “red bag” of masks and other emergency supplies that I keep in my laundry room for earthquakes, but that I’ve just unexpectedly tapped for COVID-19. I’m equipped for this disaster, but as a Californian, I know there is another one just around the corner.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.