When I moved to California in 1971, it was the Golden State. Having been raised in the Bible Belt, I knew the streets of heaven were paved in gold, and California was heaven to me. It’s a beautiful place, but it was the openness and possibility it offered that appealed to me most--okay, that and the fantastic weather. I arrived with three small children in tow, and I had no doubt they would get a first-rate public education. In the decade before, Clark Kerr, the first head of the California higher education system, had put the finishing touches on a visionary education infrastructure of major research universities, state universities and community colleges that promised a nearly free college education for all who wanted it.
I suppose Ronald Reagan's firing of Clark Kerr for being too liberal (eg, too soft on the Berkeley Free Speech protesters), on evidence trumped up by J. Edgar Hoover, should have been a warning to me that even gold can tarnish. But I was young and optimistic. I hadn’t yet learned that progress could be slowed, or even stopped. I hadn’t learned that sometimes it’s one step forward and two back.
We did take a few steps back here in California, and sideways. Proposition 13 in 1978 starved our schools financially; Proposition 187 in 1994 laid bare a fearful cruelty toward illegal immigrants. For decades we had legislative gridlock too tough for even the Terminator to break through. Only two or three years ago many were saying our state government was politically broken and fiscally bankrupt.
But we’re back, baby. We nudged up taxes and cut spending, and now we have a budget surplus. We’re permitting undocumented children to pay in-state-resident college tuition and giving them and their parents drivers licenses and protections against abusive deportation threats by employers. After years of neglect, we’re pumping our new budget surpluses back into our schools. Under the Affordable Care Act we’ve expanded Medicaid and established one of the nation’s best health insurance exchanges (no small feat, as the federal government has demonstrated).
Our fiscal comeback, and what strikes me as our renewed commitment to progressivism, has got me wondering how we do it, and why we do it. The healthcare debate has been on my mind lately because of what I think it says about who we are. I can’t for the life of me, for instance, understand why twenty-five states have refused to expand Medicaid, even though they have to pay only a tiny fraction of the cost. They’re denying better health care to their poorest citizens for what seems to be no reason. Or a reason that could only be described as spiteful and cruel. Oh, I know what they say, that down the road they will have to pay more, but when you take into account the high cost of providing emergency-room care to the uninsured, most economists say they are just wrong. The states that expand Medicaid coverage should actually save money; and their citizens will get better health care. Why wouldn’t every state do that?
We’re a country of libertarians. All of us. It’s deep in our DNA, passed on from the Mayflower to the prairie schooners. We’re restless questers. When we don’t like the way things are going, we move on. That’s the urge that settled our country. But it’s a selfish urge. Just ask the Native Americans we shoved aside to get what we wanted. When we go questing, we do it for ourselves. We’re seeking something better for ourselves and our families. We aren’t really thinking of others.
Eventually, though, we run out of new places to explore. On the East Coast, where those who crossed the Atlantic settled, and the West Coast, journey’s end for those who traversed the continent, we’re piled up on one another. Even the most steadfast libertarian learns soon enough that living close together requires learning to get along. It’s no longer enough to look after yourself and your family, you have to look after your neighbor too. Because you know you need him to be looking after you.
This is the reason, I think, that our big coastal cities are our laboratories of progressivism. These are the places where we see what it means to live together. Where we can’t run away from one another. Where daily we witness the cost to others, and to ourselves, of neglect.
I don’t know how to explain the persistence of a social Darwinist conservative philosophy in the face of its manifest failure to provide for the commonweal. Pope Francis wrote recently: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
I understand the fear of the welfare state. I understand the fear of big government. A big part of me is as libertarian as anyone. But I don’t understand turning our backs on one another. I don’t understand the myth of self-reliance. I don’t understand the fear that keeping a child from starving, or giving her early education and health care, will create a culture of dependency that will suck the life force out of our republic. It is a hope we all have that we can be anything we set our minds to and work hard for, but most of us know it is a hope that is in the same category as world peace or universally likable relatives. Eventually we learn to settle for what we can get. And for too many, what they can get is too little?
Why should we help them? I suppose that is the central question. Human decency (morality) is one reason. And for many, it is reason enough. Self-interest is the other. Even if you don’t give a damn what happens to others, you’re wise to take their needs into account purely as a matter of your own self-interest. The French Revolution and the Arab Spring remind us of that. Our own country was settled by colonists fleeing persecution and forged into a nation in a revolt against oppressive control by the English aristocracy.
I’d like to think that morality compels most of us, but I don’t believe it. I think the vast majority of us act out of self-interest. The difficulty in recognizing our self-interest in helping others is that, like global warming, it can be hard to see that the current threat is great enough to warrant any meaningful sacrifice.
The mandate of self-interest is easier to appreciate in large cities, where we are jammed together. In the sparser towns and communities across the country, it is less apparent, and therefore more deniable. Like climate change deniers, poverty deniers may not themselves suffer for their lack of vision, for their tenacious grip on the status quo, but their progeny will. Theirs and ours.
What does that mean for those of us who welcome the renaissance of the Golden State? Perhaps the greatest service we can do for those in need here in California and across the land is to make our progressive experiment work. To keep open our hearts and minds while at the same time maintaining a firm enough grip on our wallets to be certain that what we spend is for investment in the future--in health, safety, education--and not wasted. The country is watching, or will be. What we do here will matter.