California and I need a jubilee to reflect on our future

Ye shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land… it shall be a jubilee unto you. Leviticus 25:10

I’m not grown-up enough to be 50.

So perhaps it’s fitting that I passed the half-century mark while coaching California kids in their Little League opener. My party was post-game cupcakes and fourth-grade humor.

Or maybe I missed an opportunity to take some time off. Under the Biblical tradition of jubilee, every 50 years you are supposed to forgive debts, free slaves, return property to its owners, and go home to rest.

Rest and reassessment sound pretty good right now, and not just for your columnist, who has been banging out these weekly pieces for 10 years.

California could use its own jubilee year, to reflect on its future.

I, like the state’s 21st century governing system, -am a rare bird, and a child of the 1970s. Fewer people were born in the United States in 1973 than in any year since 1945. It was a tough time — gas lines, Vietnam, Watergate.

The resulting popular anger produced many changes, including in California. The 1970s birthed our signature environmental laws, the reform initiative that still rules our politics, and Proposition 13, the tax initiative that is the foundation of our dysfunctional system of governance.

Looking back now, it is remarkable how much California has achieved despite the limits we imposed on ourselves in the 70s. We are a  far wealthier place than we were a half-century ago. Our air and water are less polluted. We are better educated. We have extended more rights to more Californians, even as other parts of the country attack bodily autonomy and limit voting.

Our problems, while serious, are in most respects the results of our successes. Our gains in wealth produce inequality. Our technological breakthroughs disrupt lives and industries.

Our job growth creates traffic, which weakens infrastructure and produces greenhouses gases. Our soaring housing prices leave more people homeless.

The negative consequences of all that success are catching up to us, stalling the state’s progress. The numbers of children and immigrants are declining. The exodus of Californians to other states is accelerating. And fewer people are coming. The Public Policy Institute of California recently reported that “the state is no longer a significant draw for people from other states of any age, education, or income. So, California’s overall population is shrinking, staying under 40 million.

A sane state might stop, take a breath and a year off, and think about how to make California attractive again. But we’ve never been sane. Instead, we are hurtling ahead, spinning new and expensive solutions to our success, depending on Silicon Valley dollars that may not last forever.

State lawmakers, as usual, are offering thousands of new proposals, all building on the existing system. Gov.  Gavin Newsom, touring California this month in lieu of the traditional State of the State address, pushed out familiar-sounding ideas for old problems at a rapid clip. But neither he nor anyone else in power seems capable of slowing down long enough to design new systems that fit our age.

In recent years, I’ve spent more time outside the country, looking at how provinces and states govern themselves, and realize that there are many better directions for California to go. Thinking about the possibilities makes me feel young, even though I’m the same age as the former starlet Kate Beckinsdale, the previously ahead-of-his-time comedian Dave Chappelle, and the one-time political wunderkind turned U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla. It’s hearing people talk about all the old limits, about all the reasons we can’t change things, that makes me feel old.

These days, with strange weather making the climate crisis undeniable, we’re often told that time is running out. But even when you’re a half century old, you have a lot of time left.  I’m a teetotaler, and my relatives who don’t drink often live well into their 90s—that’s nearly another 50 years. Who knows? Maybe the scientists who are radically extending the lives of lab rats can get me another 100.

I don’t know if it’s child-like or immature or irresponsible to dream of new beginnings . But I do know that many of the pre-teen ballplayers whom I coach  on Saturdays will see 22nd century California. What better time than right now for a statewide jubilee, where we retreat and imagine a new path to their not-so-distant future?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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