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The death of California?

Scott Jagow Oct 7, 2009

It’s weird. A colleague and I were chatting today, and he wondered aloud whether California might fail. I chuckled a sad chuckle. But just now, I stumbled across an article asking that very question: Will California be the first failed state?

It’s a foreigner’s perspective from the British newspaper The Guardian. An excerpt:

By 2010, California could lose a congressman because its population will have fallen so much – an astonishing prospect for a state that is currently the biggest single political entity in America. Neighbouring Nevada has launched a mocking campaign to entice businesses away, portraying Californian politicians as monkeys, and with a tag-line jingle that runs: “Kiss your assets goodbye!” You know you have a problem when Nevada – famed for nothing more than Las Vegas, casinos and desert – is laughing at you.

This matters, too. Much has been made globally of the problems of Ireland and Iceland. Yet California dwarfs both. It is the eighth largest economy in the world, with a population of 37 million. If it was an independent country it would be in the G8. And if it were a company, it would likely be declared bankrupt.

The title of the story is taken from a recent quote by professor Kevin Starr, who wrote a history of California. He declared: “California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America.” The population loss, the soaring unemployment, the housing collapse, the state IOU’s. Has the California dream disappeared forever?

For some campaigners and advocates against suburban sprawl and car culture, it has been a bitter triumph. “Let the gloating begin!” says James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, a warning about the high cost of the suburban lifestyle. Others see the end of the housing boom as a man-made disaster akin to a mass hysteria, but with no redemption in sight. “If California was an experiment then it was an experiment of mass irresponsibility – and that has failed,” says Michael Levine.

Nowhere is the economic cost of California’s crisis writ larger than in the Central Valley town of Mendota, smack in the heart of a dusty landscape of flat, endless fields of fruit and vegetables. The town, which boldly terms itself “the cantaloup capital of the world”, now has an unemployment rate of 38%. That is expected to rise above 50% as the harvest ends and labourers are laid off. City officials hold food giveaways every two weeks. More than 40% of the town’s people live below the poverty level. Shops have shut, restaurants have closed, drugs and alcohol abuse have become a problem.

Sounds like something out of “The Grapes of Wrath.” But the article ends with optimism by some that California will not only turn things around but will lead the nation into a new economy:

It is already happening. California may have sprawling development and awful smog, but it leads the way in environmental issues. Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen as a leading light, taking the state far ahead of the federal government on eco-issues. The number of solar panels in the state has risen from 500 a decade ago to more than 50,000 now. California generates twice as much energy from solar power as all the other US states combined. Its own government is starting to turn on the reckless sprawl that has marked the state’s development.

Interesting topic for discussion. California’s progressiveness would seem to auger well for adaptation. But the problems run so deep, and this state’s politics are a mess.

Your thoughts? You know the old saying: As California goes, so goes America…

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