In the October issue of Commentary, Jennifer Rubin writes a powerful and only too compelling article—an elegy for California.
“More than 40 years later,” Jennifer writes of her family’s move to California from the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, “I still remember the bright sun and palm trees when we got off the plane. California in 1968 was a magical place….” In 2005, fed up with bad schools, dysfunctional politics, jammed freeways, and heavy taxes, Jennifer, now married and the mother of two, got out, moving back East.
Flying over Los Angeles on an annual summer visit, I peer through smog so thick that the coastline is hard to see. It is only three in the afternoon, but the cars are backed up for miles on the freeways, which remain largely in the same state of disreapir that greeted me last year. The state is literally deteriorating before my eyes….California has become…a nice place to visit. But who would want to live there?
Thirty-eight million of us, that’s who. Which means that California still matters. If nothing else, the state is simply too big for the rest of the country to write off or ignore.
Diagnosing California’s woes, Jennifer provides an astute overview, mentioning every important factor—but one. The initiative process has produced a welter of contradictory and unworkable reforms, giving the state a constitution as thick as a telephone book. Proposition 13, which launched the tax revolt of the nineteen-seventies, succeeded in holding down property taxes but had the entirely unintended consequence of removing much of responsibility for public schools from local school boards to give it instead to the bureaucracy in Sacramento.
Public employee unions have ripped off ordinary Californians, negotiating sweet pension deals with politicians only too eager to give the unions just what they wanted in return for their support. Spending has careened out of control. And large portions of the middle class have simply gotten up and left. “Between 1990 and 2000,” Jennifer notes, “2 million more left the state than arrived from other states.” The 2010 census figures will no doubt show an even bigger exodus during the decade that just ended.
The one factor that Jennifer leaves out? Immigration.
The numbers: Since 1970, the Hispanic proportion of the Golden State’s population has more than doubled, increasing from 16 to 37 percent. Overwhelmingly, the newcomers arrived from one country: Mexico. The number of immigrants now in California illegally? By a conservative estimate—a conservative estimate—some 2.6 million, or almost 7 percent of the population.
I’m generally pro-immigrant, taking the view that we ought to be as generous about permitting others to join us as we can be. But that’s just the point. Can we be as generous as we’ve been here in California for the last couple of decades? Surely the numbers matter—surely we must draw distinctions between rates of immigration we can assimilate and rates that will swamp our institutions and culture. For my friend Jennifer, then—and for anyone here on Ricochet who’d care to respond—a few questions:
- No less a figure than Harvard professor Samuel Huntington suggested that the Southwestern United States, including, of course, southern California, runs the danger of becoming culturally and linguistically more Mexican than American. With Mexicans moving into the state while whites leave California for the interior of the country, is Huntington’s fear being borne out?
- There’s plenty of evidence that, as Hispanics move into the middle class, they begin voting Republican, following the same pattern as previous immigrant groups. In California, though, the Hispanics that do indeed join the middle class are always hugely outnumbered as the influx of poor Mexicans continues—and, as these recent arrivals begin voting, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The state that gave us Reagan has now become dark blue. If it’s hard for the GOP to remain competitive—and even if Meg Whitman wins the gubernatorial race, nobody supposes Republicans will win back the state legislature—then it’s hard for California to right itself. Lord knows Jerry Brown wouldn’t stand up to the unions. And then there’s the problem of the White House. With California out of play, the GOP stands at a permanent disadvantage in presidential politics. Isn’t all that too high a price to pay for loose immigration policies?
- The 2.6 million immigrants in California illegally consume hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public services each year. They pay sales taxes—but only sales taxes. On balance, isn’t it likely that they represent an economic drag on the entire state? “[T]he several million illegal aliens in the state,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently, “might make California’s meltdown a little bit more severe than, say, Montana’s or Utah’s.” Isn’t Victor on to something?