Someday, the COVID-19 pandemic will have subsided, probably when effective biologic treatments and vaccines emerge.
Someday, California’s economy will begin recovery from the sudden and very painful recession that followed business shutdown and stay-at-home orders to fight the pandemic.
Someday, too, the tumultuous reaction to a Minneapolis policeman’s brutal suffocation of George Floyd, a black man suspected of a minor nonviolent crime — and California’s own unjust police killings — will abate.
When those somedays arrive, however, what changes will have been wrought on the nation’s most populous and complex state?
Will California simply return to what it was before these jarring, unexpected events visited themselves upon the state?
Will California’s vexing anomalies and conflicts — poverty, homelessness, housing shortages and water wars, to name but a few — have become even more intractable?
Or, will this year’s economic and social upheavals manifest themselves in a rebirth of the California that blossomed into a global economic and cultural powerhouse in the post-World War II era, again offering boundless opportunities for those with ambition and/or talent, regardless of their origins?
One of Many Examples of Our Chronic Inability to Get the Job Done
California has lost much of its mojo in recent decades, exemplified by what happened after an earthquake destroyed a section of the iconic San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1989.
California had simultaneously constructed the Bay Bridge and the even more famous Golden Gate Bridge in just a few years during the depths of the Great Depression.
They were not only monumental feats of engineering but monuments to the state’s civic leadership and its ability to plan and act on a grand scale. Those attributes were amplified a few years later when California became an arsenal for World War II and then absorbed millions of newcomers during the postwar era.
It became apparent after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that the eastern third of the Bay Bridge needed reconstruction. However, the project became an embarrassing quagmire of political infighting over the design and of construction mismanagement. It took a quarter-century — eight times as long as the initial construction of the entire bridge — and billions of additional dollars to complete.
It’s only one of many examples of our chronic inability to get the job done, such as decades of political stalemate over vital water projects, a misbegotten bullet train to nowhere, wheelspinning on housing construction, and, most shamefully, educational shortcomings that block millions of kids, particularly poor black and Latino kids, from achieving the California good life.
State and Local Governments, Mired in Debt, Could Struggle to Meet Even Basic Needs
The woeful Department of Motor Vehicles and, more recently, the equally deficient Employment Development Department seem to be symbols of our collective bumbling.
The plagues we are now experiencing threatens to deepen our civic and economic woes.
Our highest-in-the-nation poverty rate might increase as jobs erased by recession fail to reappear and as even more kids go without adequate schooling.
State and local governments, mired in debt, could struggle to meet even basic needs and housing construction likely would continue to lag.
Finally, civic life could erode even more as our racial and ethnic fragmentation worsens and our politics continue to devolve into squabbles over pieces of a shrinking pie.
Alternatively, we Californians could view the troika of crises as a warning of the state’s malaise and an opportunity to get real about fixing what needs to be fixed and doing what needs to be done, just as we once did.
The latter course would not be easy, requiring a courageous and embracing spirit that’s been sorely lacking of late. But the alternative may be the corrosive decline that afflicted other once-great outposts of civilization — such as the Roman Empire or, closer in time and geography, Detroit.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.