AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL, the Democratic Party’s agenda is effectively crippled by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Because of Republican gerrymandering in the wake of the last round of redistricting in 2010, winning back the House is an uphill battle for Democrats in the best of years, at least for the time being. In my view the House is unlikely to change hands before 2020.
In California, on the other hand, the prospects for enacting the Democratic Party’s agenda and priorities are far brighter. In the 2012 elections, the California Democratic Party achieved a milestone, winning enough seats to gain complete control of the legislative branch of the state government — such that the Democrats can pass, and the Democratic governor can sign into law, pretty much anything they want without interference from the Republicans.
This represents a significant opportunity, in my view.
I’ve said before in this space that the greatest fear about Obamacare for the national Republican Party has nothing to do with communism and death panels. Their greatest fear is that it will actually work, people will come to depend on it, and that all those newly insured people will remember all the fear-mongering done by the Republicans and recognize that fear mongering for the deeply silly thing that it was.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature have a golden opportunity to enable a similar epiphany, and on way more issues than just health care. There are a number of programs and initiatives that are currently impossible to enact at the national level, but that could be enacted at the state level and function as persuasive test projects for federal Democratic policy efforts.
Launch a massive public works program. There is both a lot of slack in the labor market and a crying need for infrastructure improvements throughout the state. For example, a significant portion of California’s levee system dates back to the 19th century, and the potential for things to go terribly wrong has been raised in nearly apocalyptic terms by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For a taste of what I’m talking about, pour yourself a stiff drink and then Google the term “California ARkStorm.”
Moreover, a non-trivial percentage of our roads, rail lines, water delivery systems and energy distribution systems — particularly in our coastal zones — are vulnerable to being massively disrupted in the next significant earthquake, particularly on the Hayward Fault. These risks can be mitigated, but it will take a multi-year, large-scale commitment to get it done. Let’s put idle workers to work on these projects.
Restore a tuition-free public higher education system. It used to be a commonplace of political economics that education is not just a personal good but also a social good. Education makes possible not just economic progress, but also a better citizenry. After graduating from college in the 1950s, my mother took some graduate courses at UC-Berkeley and did so without paying a cent for tuition, fees or books. Her expenses were paid by state taxpayers, and in return those taxpayers got a high school Spanish teacher. Free (to students) college education would enable quite a bit of class mobility, since it would make preparation for entrance into the upper middle class affordable for everyone.
Establish a statewide industrial policy. Right now the Bay Area is a great place to live for those with graduate degrees and advanced technical and computer skills (and the generous paychecks those qualifications bring). It is becoming less and less affordable for the vast majority of its residents, who do not have those skills and credentials. A reasonable alternative is to encourage the growth of advanced, skill-intensive manufacturing enterprises in the state — things like optics, precision machine tools, advanced energy generation and so forth — and to provide, at taxpayer expense, the advanced vocational skills training to all those currently struggling working-class people so they can staff those enterprises for high wages. There is no immutable law that says that advanced, precision things can only be manufactured by German and Japanese workers. California could become Germany on the Pacific, but achieving that would require a substantial commitment from the state government.
There is an immense amount of industrial infrastructure around the Bay Area that is either decaying quietly or being converted into chic lofts for tech workers. Call me crazy, but I think a better use of industrial infrastructure is for industrial enterprises to put them to use for industrial purposes.
I’d love, for example, to see the United States become a leading shipbuilder in the world once again. Mare Island would be nearly ideal for that purpose, since it was more or less designed by the Navy expressly to do just that. Encouraging a commercial ship-building industry there would go a long way toward reviving Vallejo’s fortunes. My childhood city of Richmond could similarly benefit — it was a major center of shipbuilding during the Second World War, and the old harbor is just sitting there waiting to be used once again.
All this and more could be done, but it requires courage and commitment from the California Democratic Party. Success would more or less guarantee Democratic governance in the state for the foreseeable future, and would be a persuasive argument for similar actions on the national level by the Democrats — and for giving the national Democrats large enough congressional majorities to do so.
Matt Talbot is a writer and poet, as well as an old Benicia hand. He works for a tech start-up in San Francisco.