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August 22, 2013
California's surge is nothing to brag about

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(Aug. 22 - By Peter Schrag, Special to The Bee)

You'd think from the three-column photo of Jerry Brown at the top of the front page of last Saturday's New York Times that our governor had miraculously realized his old ambition and become president.

But no, the accompanying story was just about what the Times saw as California's recovery from the "steep decline" of the prior years. "Brown Cheered In Second Act, At Least So Far," said the headline. "2-Time Governor Leads Surge in California."

Nor was it just the Times. The great California recovery has gone global.

At almost the same moment that the Times article appeared, La Vanguardia of Barcelona, Catalonia's leading newspaper and Spain's fourth largest, joined the cheering.

"California is back after years of recession and fiscal crisis," said the headline at the front of its economics section. "The state hopes for a surplus thanks to growth and tax increases." Even Sutter Brown, the governor's pet corgi, got his picture in La Vanguardia.

As a paper that supports the independence of Catalonia from Spain, it's possible that La Vanguardia senses a certain distant kinship with California. Maybe we're an outlier from the United States. But maybe La Vanguardia was just looking for hope.

Citing Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign last year, it pointed out that we had recently been called the Greece and the Spain of America. Now we were back. To the writer's credit, he also included references to the state's volatility. But his main point was clear enough.

Why is it that once every decade or so, California becomes the world's weather vane? Is it just because we're so big? Is it because lots of new things - in technology, in fads, in the larger culture, - begin here?

Just last May, I had dinner with an old acquaintance from Stockholm, a former journalist, who was writing a piece comparing California (unfavorably, of course) with Texas.

He was now working for a Swedish business association, so the angle maybe was predictable. But it also showed that this state can be an exemplar of failure and success at almost the same time.

Nobody questions that California is doing better than it did a few years ago - not necessarily a three-column picture's worth better, but better certainly than during the years when we were laying off teachers, cutting school classes, raising university tuition and worrying about worse to come. Would the whole state have to be foreclosed? How long could we sustain an unemployment rate exceeding 12 percent, the third highest in the nation, as we had in 2010?

Unemployment this July was down to 8.7 percent, a couple of ticks higher than in June - certainly not yet great - but the state's economy added more than 38,000 jobs, almost one fourth of the jobs created by the entire U.S. economy. Our GDP growth outpaced that of all but five states. Home prices are up.

And with the tax hikes that voters approved in 2012 and the growth of the economy, the state, according to Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, may be looking at budget surpluses, not deficits, in the years ahead. Taylor called it "a dramatic turnaround."

But that's not figuring the heavy overhang of underfunded public employee pension liabilities and retire health benefits, state and local. It doesn't look to any rollback of the enormous university tuition increases of the last few years.

It doesn't restore funding to the schools to bring them to the national average, much close to adequacy; doesn't bring back the counselors, doesn't create the universal preschool program the state badly needs.

We've restored majority rule in the Legislature for passage of the state budget but still have the supermajority threshold to enact tax increases.

We still have a near absolute cap on any local property tax increases. This blue state still loves its Proposition 13, despite the governmental dysfunction it brings us.

But the real problem with all the attention to the California drama is not that it so often tends to excess, both good and bad, but that it misses a bigger story. If California has any great lesson to tell, it's in its efforts to create a successful society from the great diversity that its population represents.

Our ability to assimilate that diversity - Anglo-white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern - has lessons for all the world: the Brits and Dutch with their Muslims; the Germans with their Turks; the Italians and Spanish with their North Africans.

We do not tell Muslim women they can't wear the hijab. We make it possible for immigrants or their children to become citizens and vote. Despite the travesties of our deportation policies, we allow many more to come and stay.

What California has not yet done is give those children the same quality of education and the same access to college that the children of the immigrants from Iowa and Kansas got here a half-century ago. Our roads are an embarrassment; our prisons are a festering costly scandal - the list runs on. So far the California "surge" is just a little itty-bitty one.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee.

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