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The California Shipwreck

Marc B. Haefele

It's catastrophe time again in Southern California. The year's early months, now the official season of disaster and relief, have brought in the folks from the acronym agencies for this, the fifth disaster since 1992: a foot of rain in a week in areas that don't get this much in a normal year. President Clinton promises to make us whole again on the national news, while his razor-cut young agent, just before a January Los Angeles City Hall press conference, asks a familiar reporter: "Aren't you sick of seeing me here?"

But the flood isn't the matter at hand. At the rostrum, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena joins Mayor Dick Riordan in a talking foto-op to announce a half-billion dollars for the city's misbegotten subway. Undermined by shoddy contracting, the 5-mile stub line carries 18,000 fares a day at a loss of $4 per fare and is billions over budget. When complete, it will facilitate the 21st Century city that most voting Angelenos don't want -- a mid-rise, poorer, darker, urban landscape the size and density of Sao Paulo.

To many, this future is the biggest disaster of all. This is why they just voted in the nation's first modern immigrant exclusionary law. In 10 years, the middle-class dream of Southern California has devoured itself. There are just too many people for everyone to own a palm-shaded home in the suburbs.

Since 1989, Los Angeles lost 206,000 manufacturing jobs, 90,000 retail jobs, even 30,000 service-sector jobs. Lockheed ended March with thousands of layoffs preceding its post-merger move east. Homes sell for two-thirds peak values. Many wait only for the right buyer, the right out-of-state job. The net population increase is attributed to the low-income birth rate, but Los Angeles' Black flight includes all classes, testifying both to the failure of opportunity and the decline of African-American political strength after Mayor Tom Bradley.

To nearby states, California means unsought immigration. The problems migrants sometimes have in Seattle or Santa Fe make one wonder whether, as sci-fi writer R.A. Lafferty once speculated, Angelenos might become the automotive gypsies of the 21st Century.

To business, long-established quality-of-life-based regulations also make Los Angeles a place to escape. The business taxes are lower than Phoenix's -- but perception of overregulation and bureaucracy is everything, and so is the outward urge.

L.A. is vilely overpriced and broke; a place where random disaster happens all the time.

There are hopeful signs: the statewide emigrant surge just sank below 400,000 for the first time since 1990 and home sales recently rose above absolute zero. But Los Angeles County has more than 40,000 pending downward property reassessments.

The multibillion-dollar bankruptcy of adjacent Orange County, the bastion of Republican prosperity, stuck another spoke in recovery's wheel. That particular bankruptcy was more than an effect of the recession. It was a sign that the consequences of 16 years of skewed property taxes since the passage of Howard Jarvis' Prop. 13 "tax reform" are boomeranging home to those who most benefitted from them -- the affluent suburbs. Orange County, the conservative archsuburb whose voters always opposed disaster aid for other regions, got scant sympathy and no legislative help.

But in November, the suburbs, with their sagging home values and declining property tax revenues, found a scapegoat.

They voted overwhelmingly to oust the poor without citizenship or green cards. The ballot initiative called Proposition 187, denying benefits and education to undocumented immigrants, triumphed at the polls. In Los Angeles, at least, its success was in inverse geographic proportion to the actual adverse effects of the undocumented on local society.

The second initiative was not unconnected to the 1978 Jarvis proposition. Both initiatives were promoted as panaceas. And assuming the courts finally sustain 187, both will have far-reaching, long-lasting and unintended effects.

The California initiative process was enacted in 1911 by Progressive Republicans infatuated with the electorate's capacity for good. It was a de facto trade off in return for the same movement's dismantling of the local political process, by outlawing partisan politics in city and county elections. As a result, the whole ward-heeler-district committee structure that made Boston and Chicago politics, for better or worse, responsive to poor, first-generation voters, never happened in California.

Instead, voters got their pipeline into government via initiative and referendum. Eight percent of the signatures of registered voters puts a state constitutional amendment on the ballot. To give the people the final say over the politicians, there is only judicial override of initiatives. In the information age, the Populist panacea has turned into Pushbutton Politics -- there have been more than 200 state ballot measures in just 16 years. Last year, these included the tobacco industry's failed attempt to preempt local smoking regulations and an amendment which protects the "Three Strikes" law against legislative tampering. Millions are spent promoting and opposing the measures.

Since 1911, though, probably no two initiatives have so bracketed a California era as have propositions 13 in 1978 and 187 in 1994.

The first held down local property taxes by subjecting their increase to a two-thirds vote -- a minority-empowering fraction vote which has never been mustered on a county-wide level.

It also rewarded the the oldest, votingest, White st and most conservative tax payers by perpetuating their early-1970s tax rates -- really a form of Republican rent control -- while costs of government, along with everything else, inflated more than 300 percent.

Prop. 13 opponents argued that local government services and education would collapse immediately. The predictions, which a landslide of 1978 voters obviously doubted, were off by 12 years as the California economy roared into the 80s on double-digit, defense-fired growth. But the graph lines of shrinking government and sinking economy touched around 1989. Services to the poor, both documented and otherwise, were in increasing demand. Funding to provide the services was disappearing. It was time to seek someone to blame.

Year 1994 was not the first time California scapegoated minorities in time of fiscal crisis. The anti-Chinese laws of the 1870s and the anti-Japanese laws of 1913 respectively followed a depression and a recession. Following the post-WW I slump, Mexican-Americans and even U.S. citizens of Mexican descent had been forcibly repatriated in box cars.

In 1990, Gov. Wilson spoke about the roots of social ills like a classic Progressive of 1910. Four years later, underdog Wilson embraced 187 and rode the degenerate Progressives' "smite the stranger" 1913 policies to landslide re-election.

Since then Wilson, in the spirit of the Contract With America, has found more goats to scape. He since promised also to afflict the welfare-dependent, the unproductive, "undeserving" poor.

In his subsequent, state-of-the-state speech that was a seamless continuation of the inaugural pep talk, the gubernatorial goatscape gained trial lawyers, bad teachers, bad students. Little girls who keep having baby after baby for "cash."

Absent was any appeal for the population to join to drag California out of tough times. Or any acknowledgment that, over his eight years in statewide office, Wilson had failed to wean the state economy from its defense dependency.

The governor was responding to a rage, unassuaged by the Republican victories, that still hangs over the state's single-family homeowners like late summer smog. A population of boosters has become a population of blamers, and potentially, no group is too marginal to blame for the high cost and low fulfillment level of life in California.

And of course no one gets elected these days by telling his, or her, fellows to "just get along." The anger is not unlike the rage in the ghettos and barrios, where endemic, fatal hatred can be triggered by symbolic aggression, an accidental nudge, a misinterpreted gesture, a wrong first name, turning a party into a slaughter.

But middle-class rage is worrisome not just in the context of local weapons stockpiling. There is a good living to be made in stoking it. A hate-radio jock in San Francisco is calling for bounties on dead illegal aliens. His L.A. counterpart preaches death to the homeless.

All in the spirit of free speech, of course, but how long would a Spanish-language radio commentator preaching death to gringos last?

Although illegal aliens in their considerable numbers do not affect most of the middle class, it was easy propaganda to make them appear to. The real causes of the state's economic collapse aren't standing around on street corners selling oranges. The half-billion unreimbursed tax dollars immigrants cost the county of Los Angeles out of a total budget of some $16 billion hits public health and social service areas that will never affect most Angelenos. The cost comes down to about $50 per year per county resident.

Where illegal immigration has increasingly hit home is in education. But Los Angeles School Board President Mark Slavkin observes that the effect is unknown, as is the number of illegal immigrant children in the system. "We are not, under current law, allowed to ask such questions," he says.

Slavkin is in part responsible for this state of affairs. He took an active role in the federal court action that enjoined the Prop. 187 provisions to weed out immigrant children. One of the brightest and most ambitious people to sit on the L.A. school board in recent decades, he accordingly now must also deal with a recall campaign -- recall being another Progressive legacy -- instigated by Prop. 187 backers miffed at his stand.

The "Save Our State" pro-187 campaign is led locally by Glenn Spencer, a man who has reportedly said he got involved in Prop. 187 because there were too many minorities around.

Now Spencer is said to be preparing an initiative that would require language and literacy tests to all seeking citizenship. Elsewhere, the "California Civil Rights Initiative" would end affirmative action programs. The initiative process offers push-button solutions -- it consummates the impulse politics of talk radio.

These politics brought out in November what one Bay Area commentator called voting White males of all genders and races. To this constituency, young Latino protesters with Mexican flags and the official predictions of family disruption were among Prop. 187's strong selling points.

It can be argued that Prop. 187 had no racist component, since it also affects undocumented Swiss and Australians. It can similarly be argued that poll taxes and literacy tests weren't aimed at African-Americans, but simply spread tax burdens and encouraged the delights of learning.

No one is really being fooled. "How I hate that arrogant strut," a gloating midtown adman told me the day after Proposition 187 passed, speaking of a passing pair of minimum-wage day laborers.

This strutting poor man, however, is also the phantom backbone of the local economy. Anti-immigrationists are enraged by statistics that contend immigrants are a net gain to the economy. What matters, the new conventional wisdom states, is that they burden us here and the taxes and Social Security that they pay to Washington don't come back to the state.

But that is not the whole story.

Those who give their labor so cheaply weren't always an impossible burden to White Southern California. The tan man on the freeway-entrance corner selling Texas oranges in $2 bags; the woman with a glittering array of cheap jewelry spread on the Alvarado Street sidewalk; the dark men slapping hot tar on roofs in the 100-degree San Fernando Valley sun; the hundreds in straw Stetsons on street corners, hustling a few hours of work and sleeping eight to a room -- just yesterday they signified the overflowing richness of the land to which they were drawn like birds to fallen fruit.

"I'd start worrying seriously about the economy if they ever stopped coming here," a prominent City Hall lobbyist said three years ago. They didn't stop coming.

These immigrants were part of California's televised folklore. Their cheap wages subsidized languorous lifestyles that encountered them only as servants -- cleaning up after the coke orgies, keeping kempt the paneled Century City suites of the L.A. lawyers.

Now that the good times are gone, the perception is poisoned. The common-law marriage of cheap labor and abundant life style has been annulled. The disgraced and incompatible partner is ordered out.

But the undocumented cheap labor remains a largely undocumented added value to the local economy. If it goes, it will be missed in ways the governor apparently chooses not to imagine.

This labor makes toys and clothes, furniture and auto parts at sub-minimum wages, creating vast profits for Third World simulcra of industries that corporate money and union organization left behind decades before. With them went the jobs of many home-owning, working-class Anglos and Black s.

The undocumented aliens shored up the new manufacturing base in Greater Los Angeles while the aerospace plants paying $20 an hour closed or moved to Georgia.

When the middle class voted for 187, they voted against more than brown kids in schools. They also voted against Los Angeles as the nation's largest manufacturing city, and against the Reagan-era policies that shunted them aside in favor of a Third-World economy within county limits.

This sprawling but undocumented productivity segment, the foster-child of a half-generation of state and national Republican policies was offered up in sacrifice to the anger of the mostly-White electorate.

The Prop. 187 true believer says that poor citizens will rush into these sweated jobs whose minimum wages they've shunned elsewhere.

This remains to be seen. But this economy is not going away.

Mexico's peso is in free fall. The buying power of Mexico's minimum wage sank to $20 per week when its government's attempt to prop up its currency with 20-percent bonds failed in January. By the middle of March, Mexico City was offering a 90-percent bond return.

As this is written, President Clinton's Mexico bailout plan has been enacted at half-strength by executive decree. Looming across the border is the greatest surge of illegal immigration in the past 20 years, this into a social hostility of 19th Century proportions.

But just a month after this year's California Federal Emergency Season, the rains were over and gone, and mostly unremembered. In San Diego, there was Bolt Fever for the hapless Chargers, the MLA-goers reluctantly left the Convention Center for their chilly, eastern campuses and America's Cup yachts were tacking off the shores as dinner cruisers watched the show from gaff-rigged schooners on Mission Bay.

All over the state there was warm, summery sunshine. To those not devastated by the storms, the recent cataclysms were quickly forgotten.

In downtown Los Angeles, the Simpson trial was in full swing. The world watched as a famous man who had everything stood trial for the murder of the woman he had driven out of his life with jealousy, rage, and violence. A modern California story if ever there was one.

Three thousand miles away, the Brooklyn Bridge bent under its snowdrifts in a windchill of minus 32 degrees. But across the street from the Los Angeles Criminal Courts where O.J. was meeting his fate, magnolias and cherry trees were in blossom and short-sleeved county employees on their morning breaks gathered under the eucalyptus trees by the roaring Civic Center fountain sipping tall plastic tumblers of Red Zinger iced tea.

The county employees felt the way Californians always do when they walk out into the summer while the rest of the nation has its worst weather. When all else fails in Southern California, there is always that saving season of meteorological Schadenfreude.

Weeks later, after another storm disaster that killed a dozen people, the climate remained perfect. After all the rain, the normally brown, scraggly hills around downtown were green as an electric spark in darkness, the oranges and tangerines hung heavy and sweet on their slopes. The air was clear and you could see the snow on the mountains; weekend skiing was never better. The beaches were crowded;

They call it false spring here, but then Southern California doesn't have the real kind.

Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review



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