One California, Divisible
In the April 2014 issue of the Independent, my dear friend Martin Sartorius makes clear his distaste for Silicon Valley billionaire Tim Draper’s plan to split the Golden State into “Six Californias.” It is, no doubt, a crazy idea. Come November, I’ll probably vote against it. From a practical perspective alone, the thought of splitting one state into six is intimidating.
There is, however, a case to be made for dividing California as outlined in Mr. Draper’s proposal. In fact, there are many different approaches to argue for dividing up the state, but I will focus on three. First, division would cool Californians’ long-simmering frustration with their lack of representation in the US Senate. Second, California’s “blue model” government, to use a term popularized by Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead, has failed its people in ways that even three-term, center-left Governor Jerry Brown cannot fix. Third, partition would not only bring state governments closer to their people, but also promote innovation within and competition between the new state governments.
Numbering almost 40 million, Californians make up an eighth of America’s population. Californians make up an eighth of the House of Representatives. But while California is more populous than the 21 smallest states combined, those states have 42 Senators while California has two.
America’s Senators represent on average about six million people. About six million people would also be the average population of the six new Californias – Central California, Jefferson, North California, Silicon Valley, South California, and West California. Adding ten new US Senators would bring California’s senatorial representation in line with the rest of the nation. While a dearth of Senate representation is a serious concern, day in and day out, the average Californian has to put up with much more troubling issues, ones Sacramento has shown it cannot solve.
The Death of the California Dream
California has arguably failed its people. It is not only the state with the most poverty in absolute terms, but also the highest poverty rate relative to every other state. Nearly a quarter of Californians are impoverished. With substantially higher costs of living, it is hard to live comfortably on even a middle income in many parts of the state. Schools rank among the very worst in the country in terms of student performance and per-pupil spending. Meanwhile, the total statewide debt is staggering, lying somewhere between $848 billion and $1.1 trillion.
For such a large and economically diverse state, California should have an average unemployment rate, but the state’s unemployment rate has consistently ranked among the worst nationally. Currently at 8.0% using the U-3 model, Californians face the fourth worst unemployment situation in the nation. About half of counties contend with double-digit unemployment. Those who do work face some of the highest income taxes in America. Among other organizations, Chief Executive has rated California’s business climate as the worst in the nation, for nine years running.
Opponents bring up the fact that if California were split, two of the new states, Silicon Valley and Central California, would immediately become America’s richest and poorest states, respectively. However, when residents in Central California today are poorer on average than people in America’s poorest state, Mississippi, is today’s California really working for them?
For these reasons and more, almost four million Californians have moved to other states over the past 20 years. While the climate is great, Californians have to put up with more structural barriers to survival and success than the average American. And with the state’s political leadership offering few creative ideas beyond funding campaigns with international arms trafficking or taking bribes to enrich their relatives (interactive), the outlook for the future is not much better. Managing the decline is taxing enough. But divvying the state up would certainly be no picnic. So why split?
Benefits of Separation
Imagine the unique opportunity created by six Californias. While the states are often referred to as the laboratories of American democracy, separation from one unified state into six would create the ultimate opportunity to experiment in state-level policy. In Silicon Valley a debate could rage between old-school liberals and libertarian liberals, governing with a synthesis of the two; Western California could double down on the state’s extant blue model policies; Central California and Jefferson could institute libertarian-conservative red model government; and North and South California would likely form purplish governments. Generations of political scientists could study how each of these states evolved. Dividing along county lines makes a treasure trove of data useful for comparative analyses.
As it stands today, vast amounts of wealth and people are flowing out of the wealthiest parts of California to other states, and from other states into the poorer parts of California. If the poorer, inland, often more conservative regions could craft their own policies, they might well become meccas for opportunity like Texas, which has posted robust, broad-based job growth since 2000 and could serve as their model. Coastal, wealthier, bluer parts of today’s California could focus on reducing income inequality, expanding government services, and keeping people and capital inside their territories. Rather than leaving for Texas or Colorado, Californians could move an hour away to the California experience that is right for them.
Building six new state governments in the digital age would bring new and unexplored opportunities to the new Founders of California. Within governments, starting afresh with heavy integration of technology resources and innovative constitutional and bureaucratic models could increase government efficiency and provide other now-unknown benefits. Between governments there could be healthy competition mixed with cooperation on issues ranging from higher education to public health to water to earthquake and fire preparedness. On competitive cooperation they could look to the Claremont Colleges for advice.
And if the split were to happen, we could all still call ourselves Californians. We have a shared history – Hiram Johnson, the Brown Dynasty and Ronald Reagan; a shared Spanish heritage; the ‘49ers; Prop 13; and a “Golden Moment” when California was the envy of the nation. Our parents and grandparents were drawn to this state for its once-plentiful opportunities; and the allure of California lingers still. The climate, the lifestyle, and the quality of people in California are hard to beat. But the situation outside of a few relative oases is so difficult for the average Californian that something has to change. Crafting policies geared toward the subtly or substantially different characteristics of these six different regions is a good place to start. By breaking California into six states, we might see Californians thrive more than ever before.