LOS ANGELES — Californians take pride in the notion that everything in America starts here — the music, the clothes, the food, the fun and games of the celebrity culture. Now California is showing the nation something else, a view from the bottom of the fiscal cliff. Life from Gruesome Gulch, you might say.
It's not pretty: Higher taxes, reduced public services, cuts in money for schools, crumbling bridges and highways, all the ills endemic to out-of-control welfare states.
Californians are still besotted with the dream of living off the lotus, though growing numbers of them are concluding that the game will be up soon. Thousands continue to flee California every year. Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington are collecting most of the disillusioned emigrants, though thousands have made it to Georgia and South Carolina.
There's no John Steinbeck to tell a story of a trek very different from the journey taken in the opposite direction by the Joads of Oklahoma, but a study by the Manhattan Institute finds prosperous Californians fleeing dramatically higher taxes, tightening regulations, union power that pushes up labor costs, more expensive electricity, and ever more costly housing and commercial real estate. California is not quite the golden state it used to be.
The escape is not new. More Californians have left the state than newcomers have arrived every year since 2005. What is new is the accelerating trend. More than 4 million new residents arrived here in the go-go years between 1960 and 1990, attracted by mild and sunny weather, a lush and varied geography, and most of all by the fervent belief of nearly everyone that "anything goes" and "everything's possible." The future looked to bear no limit.
Now the future is here. Persuaded by Gov. Jerry Brown, Californians have adopted a number of new tax initiatives, including Proposition 30, which would raise the state sales tax to 8.25 percent, and an increase in the state income tax on taxpayers earning more than $250,000. Resistance to cutting entitlement to the lotus is great.
California has become radioactive in much of the West. You can still see an occasional frayed bumper sticker on the back roads of Colorado, pleading "Don't Californicate Colorado." The state's politics would hardly be recognizable to Howard Jarvis, a perennial candidate for various offices whose Proposition 13, slashing property taxes by nearly 60 percent, set off the national tax revolt in 1978. Prop 13, opposed by most of the politicians and the big newspapers, was enacted in a landslide.
But lately Californians have returned to a diet of the lotus, the fruit in Greek mythology that delivers dreamy contentment and idle forgetfulness. The lotus is the unofficial state fruit. A new study by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation blames the remarkably generous pay and pensions of state employes for California's budget problems, now speeding toward terminal. The per-capita salary of state employes, including benefits, is about twice the per-capita salary of everybody else.
Nevertheless, Californians eagerly approved the $6 billion bundle of tax increases in November, sold to voters as politicians from City Hall to the White House always sell taxes, as the only way to avoid closing the orphanages and throwing little match girls into the street.
"I know a lot of people had some doubts and some questions," the governor told an election night rally, " 'Can you really go to the people and ask them to vote for a tax?' Here we are. We have a vote of the people. I think we are the only state in the country that says, 'Let's raise our taxes, for our kids, for our schools, and for our California dream.' "
The cost of delivering state services exceeds by a wide margin the per-worker costs in other highly unionized states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois. In one remarkable case, an Afghanistan-educated psychiatrist arrived in California six years ago and got a state job paying $90,682 a year. Now he's making $822,302 a year. He worked weekends and even performed some of his duties from home. The state is investigating how he piled up so much pay.
"I've been put on leave for working too hard," he told an interviewer.
California's unemployment rate, above 10 percent for most of this year, is one of the highest in the nation, and the state has lost 855,200 private-sector jobs since 2008. Living here can still be golden indeed. The lush farms in the San Joaquin Valley can feed half the nation, the Napa and Sonoma vineyards produce some of the world's best wines, and the high-tech corridor is thriving. A gulch will be a gruesome substitute.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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