Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez / PI / Landov

Unscrambling the California omelet

Why breaking the state into six is a terrible idea

July 27, 2014 6:00AM ET

There are many arguments in support of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper’s view that California is too big, too diverse and too unwieldy to work efficiently as a state. With 38 million residents and growing; 13 TV markets; some 7,000 government entities, including cities, counties, water and mosquito abatement districts, school districts; and an ethnically and economically polyglot population, most residents feel closer to their local governments than to the distant politicians in Sacramento.

Under the proposal of venture capitalist Tim Draper, California would be split into six states: Jefferson (red), North California (yellow), Silicon Valley (green), Central California (light blue), West California (dark blue) and South California (purple).
US Census / Wikimedia Commons (cc)

Draper’s remedy: an initiative for the 2016 ballot to divide California into six states to bring government closer to the people. One, the proposed new coastal state of Silicon Valley, which would include San Francisco and the high-tech suburbs to the south (where Draper lives), would have the highest per capita income in the nation, above Connecticut. Its neighbor to the east, the state of Central California (a region sometimes called California’s Appalachia), would be the poorest, poorer than Mississippi. That might be welcome to the rich taxpayers along the coast, but it would create monstrous problems for the have-nots.

California is not immune to such appeals. For nearly 40 years, Californians have passed initiative after initiative putting restraints on government — tax and spending limits, legislative term limits, school spending formulas, criminal sentencing mandates, a ban on affirmative action.

But this is a nutty idea, nuttier even than Draper’s costly school voucher initiative in 2000, which got trounced by a vote of 70–30. So perhaps this move is a very costly provocation to bring out some great new wave of disaffected rednecks with pitchforks, or to generate yet another great anti-establishment political upheaval like the tax revolt of 1978 or the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

Nevertheless, its chances of ever becoming reality range between slim and none. At heart, California is a purple state — blue socially, faintly red financially. Every poll shows that Californians have more confidence in the initiative process than in conventional government. If you ask the typical Californian where she’s from, she won’t even answer Los Angeles, she’ll say Van Nuys or Boyle Heights. 

Model diversity

And yet California works — and now that the economy is recovering, it works better than it has in many years. In the early 1990s we passed an initiative, later overturned by the federal courts, denying all public services, including the right to a public education, to all undocumented immigrants, a measure that was more severe than SB1070, the notorious immigrant-bashing law that Arizona enacted in 2010.

Now California is becoming a model for states (and ultimately, one hopes, for nations) as a place where the people who compose that great ethnic and cultural diversity — Anglo, Latino, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Polish, Iranian, Russian — have learned to be comfortable with one another to the point where we rarely notice those ethnic differences.

A decade ago, a California demographer pointed out that the majority of new California homeowners had Hispanic names. California now has hundreds of thousands of Latino business owners, countless Chinese professors and Indian engineers. No one much cares anymore whether the candidate for Congress or the City Council is black or white or “other.” In that context, the recent protest in Murrieta, with its racist overtones, against efforts to house some of the undocumented kids trying to escape the violence in Central America — there were others in other states — is an outlier. The much greater Minutemen movement to stop illegal border crossings that sprang up a decade ago fizzled almost as fast as it arose. The rate of ethnic intermarriage is now at a point where a leading observer pointed out that many of the children born today don’t look like their grandparents. 

Americans like the idea of a unified California, both as a symbol of American hope and possibilities and as a land of laid-back lotus eaters.

A Jewish president of the University of California named Yudof has just been succeeded by an Italian-American woman named Napolitano. This is the place, as someone noted long ago, of the kosher burrito. It has since been joined by the kimchee taco, kosher Thai and Sichuan guacamole.

One fourth of our schoolchildren come from homes where some language other than English is spoken: Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Hindi, Russian, Polish. And while they still graduate and attend college at disturbingly different rates, the gaps are shrinking. The challenge of that is itself awe-inspiring.

Economically, California, the world’s seventh or eighth largest economy, is still the driver of the nation’s innovation and much of the world’s technology, an area in which Draper himself has played a considerable part. It would be nearly impossible to unscramble the omelet that makes that success possible. 

Fiscal obligations

Which of Draper’s six successor states would manage the great, complex water system that powers California’s agriculture? Who would administer the great public universities that are still the envy of the world? Two or three of Draper’s successor states would get Berkeley, the University of California at San Francisco, UCLA, and the University of California at San Diego; some would get almost nothing.

How would the state’s fiscal obligations, the bonded debt, the underfunded pension obligations, be allocated? If by population, then the new state of Central California, already one of the poorest regions in the nation, would be saddled with an unbearable burden.

And what of the prisons, which house thousands of felons from Los Angeles, but which, for obvious reasons, are located in those poorer places? Would one of the great exports of Draper’s new rural state of Jefferson be prison services? Would the rich taxpayers of the new state of Silicon Valley be willing to subsidize the social services and health care of the people in the deserts of the poor state of South California (which does not include Los Angeles), as they do now?

For Republicans there might be some attraction in a California breakup: The state’s current 55 electoral votes, which in the past six presidential elections have all gone to the Democrat, would split to maybe 48–17 (counting the 10 extra votes for the senators that the new states would get), meaning a somewhat slimmer Democratic edge in the Electoral College.

But 10 new senators? Would anyone in Congress, which must approve the new states, want to dilute his state’s clout in the Senate by 10 percent, particularly anyone from a small state like Wyoming, whose clout in the upper house is many times its population? Not a prayer.

Maybe equally important, Americans (and non-Americans) like the idea of California — one California — both as a symbol of American hope and possibilities and as a land of laid-back lotus eaters. Both stereotypes have truth to them. Long before there was a political entity called California, there was the idea, the vision. It’s on the old maps; it was in the mission of the conquistadors, in the dreams of the pioneers going west. It’s part of us. Draper can’t undo that. 

Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future," and other books on current affairs. His most recent book, published in 2010, is "Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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