<i>"For most of my life California felt rich to me: that was the point of it, that was the promise ... the very texture of the place."
— Joan Didion, in the collection of essays called "Where I Was From."</i>
This spring we drove south through the broad, flat lands of the Central Valley and saw the signs proliferating among the orchards that line Interstate 5.
"New Dust Bowl Created by Congress," the signs say. "No Water, No Jobs Equals Higher Food Costs."
Here are farm corporations that have prospered for decades, thanks to water delivered to their doorsteps by state and federal agencies. Now they imagine themselves to be victims of a vindictive government.
The signs don't mention a drought like none in California history. Nor do they acknowledge the area's recent rush to plant almonds, trees that use more water than some other crops.
In her collection of essays about her native state, Joan Didion writes about the contradictions that frequent the California story, and here was a fine example.
In hard times, people look for someone to blame, and these are hard times in the Central Valley. A UC Davis study last week estimated the valley farm industry will suffer drought losses of $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. Water deliveries in this drought year will be about two-thirds of what is delivered in a normal year.
People who grew up in California — people like me — were raised to believe that we live in a blessed place, this <i>Golden State</i>. We were the envy of the world because land, climate and ambition combined to guarantee a large and upwardly mobile middle class — empowered by what we proudly proclaimed to be the finest system of public education in the world.
But now, even with the recession in the rearview mirror, California struggles to find the old mojo. Everywhere we look, there are questions. What will we do about a shrinking middle class, overseas competition, drought and climate change, rising public debt and declining public services, falling test scores?
What we will do about layers of government ill-equipped to respond to 21st century problems? What will we do about a confluence of politicians who are not very good at imagining the world beyond the next election?
Six years after the housing market cratered, a majority of registered voters continues to believe the state is moving in the wrong direction, according to a survey published Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California. As for the economy, a plurality believes the next 12 months will bring more bad times.
Strolling through a tony shopping center on the west side of Los Angeles, surveying yet another manicured golf course in the Coachella Valley, eating a world-class meal in San Francisco, savoring the pleasures of living in the Wine Country of Sonoma County — we can see signs of abundance all around us. In technology and innovation, California remains a creative powerhouse.
Yet we know things aren't right. Too many people are out of work, or stuck in jobs that pay too little, widening the gap between rich and poor. Too many kids are being left behind. Government isn't taking care of the public improvements that provided the foundation for the broad prosperity now at risk.