Book review: Paradise Lost

What can I say? Another day, another review.

Peter Shrag. Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 283 pp; with endnotes and index.

If the rest of the United States has lessons to learn from California, Nevada (and particularly Southern Nevada) should be the first to heed them. After all, Southern Nevada is in many ways an out-of-state extension of the Southern California multi-county suburban complex, and both the north and south of Nevada have been traditionally tied by culture, economics, and politics to the Golden State. So Peter Shrag’s Paradise Lost is a book that Nevadans should read with open eyes. Journalist Shrag (a writer for the Sacramento Bee) has both covered California’s political scene and taught public policy at Berkeley, and is thus in a position to synthesize the legislative and elective politics of California in a way that is readable-and relevant-to both interested citizens and policy professionals.

Shrag skillfully argues that Californians’ “tax revolt,” beginning with Proposition 13 in 1978, brought lowered expectations and an ongoing slide in the quality of California’s public services. Indeed, by any imaginable yardstick, California has been transformed from a thriving, resource-rich state with an enviable array of educational and social services to a land where county governments teeter on bankruptcy, the vaunted free university system is no longer free, and once-welcome immigrants are increasingly viewed as threatening and burdensome.

This happened through a series of steps taken by California’s electorate to protect its own best interests and, paradoxically preserve the quality of life of individual voters. Shrag pins the lion’s share of the blame on California’s plebiscitary short-circuiting of the legislative process-thanks to Californians’ liberal use of ballot initiatives to codify law on everything from property taxes to insurance reform to affirmative action. The neopopulist drive to hold down property taxes, for example, effectively undercut the primary funding for California’s schools, resulting in a severe decline in the quality elementary and secondary education. The emended tax codes, for a variety of reasons, heavily penalize home buyers (whose re-assessed taxes can be five times those paid by long-owning neighbors) and discourage new industrial development. None of this was intended by those who voted in 1978 in favor of Proposition 13 (most were, after all, homeowners who simply wanted to hold rising property taxes in check). But the constricting tax laws are nothing more or less than the will of the people, written into law without the mediating presence of a legislature.

Shrag dissects the implications of the neopopulist voter revolt within the framework of California’s shifting demographics. After all, these radical measures only took place as California changed from “a society that thought of itself…overwhelmingly white and middle class to one in which whites will soon be just another minority and where Hispanics, Asians, and blacks already constitute a sizeable majority in school enrollment and in the use of many other public services”(10-11). Thus, Shrag hits at the core of the problem: California’s voting citizens, in his interpretation, are predominantly white, elderly, and affluent, and those who public services tend to be non-white, young, and poor. It is race, rather than economics, that is the primary driver of the fiscal backlash that has gutted education and public services. Thus, though it is “the people” who speak via the ballot initiative, Shrag believes that “the people” who vote are hardly representative of the people who live, work, and pay taxes in California.

The ballot initiative process itself, rather than being a tool for informed voters to take an active role in democracy, has become yet another tool of special interests. Shrag traces the evolution, in his chapter “March of the Plebiscites,” of the media consultants, direct mail specialists, and pollsters who orchestrate signature campaigns and mold public opinion via advertising-something that has become an industry in and of itself. The “concerned citizen” groups that ostensibly sponsor most initiatives are, more often than not, pieces in a shell game played by electoral marketers who focus test an issue, seek out a sponsor, and then roll out the artillery, all in the name of direct democracy.

So what does all this have to do with Nevada? Nevada is, after all, a low tax haven, with sales taxes and gleanings from gaming revenue filling the coffers. In the aftermath of September 11, it is clear that, in the event that the bottom ever does fall out of the gaming and tourist industries, this state could easily be facing the same problems that California is. Paradise Lost, in this regard, should serve as a cautionary tale, a reminder that the easiest political and fiscal choice is not always the best one. Furthermore, this book should remind Nevadans that no matter how flush their own bank accounts may be, it makes good civic sense to ensure that schools are being built and maintained, essential public services are being meted out, and new residents and businesses are not made to assume an unwieldy share of the tax burden. If a state with the diversified economy, abundant resources, and technological and entrepreneurial advantages of California can dig itself into such an abyss of decaying schools and crumbling infrastructure, than certainly the more marginal Nevada can, as well. Those who fancy themselves civic-minded, then, may want to read Paradise Lost before the Silver State founders, like its golden neighbor, on the political and fiscal rocks of misinformed neopopulism.

Originally reviewed May 2002.

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