Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future by Peter Schrag

by Randy Shaw on August 19, 2004

There are some books that are so insightful that they literally must be read for a particular topic to be understood. Peter Schrag’s Paradise Lost is such a book. His topic is California politics. If you want to fully understand the forces that led to the transformation of California from its socially responsible days in the 1960’s to its selfish priorities today, you must read this book.

Schrag spent nineteen years as the editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. He first published Paradise Lost in 1998, updated it in 1999, and has added a new preface that addresses the Davis recall and its aftermath. Unfortunately for Californians, the institutional problems Schrag highlighted six years ago remain central to the state today.

Pogo, a famous 1950’s comic strip by Walt Kelly, once had the caption “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This perfectly captures how a state that once invested in its people was captured-and is still held hostage-by an electorate that opposes the tax hikes necessary for most of its residents to prosper.

In his preface to the 2004 edition, Schrag notes the irony that while the recall of Gray Davis was motivated by anger at “the system,” the voters themselves were at least as much responsible for California’s problems as the politicians.

Schrag rattles off the litany of ballot measures —such as Prop 13, Prop 218, term limits, school funding earmarks, three-strikes—that have sharply limited the budget authority of Governors and Legislators. These measures and others have forced elected officials to fund a massive prison expansion and prevented California from adequately funding schools.

Schrag demonstrates that contrary to the myth propagated by Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, the golden age of California in the 1960’s occurred while we were a high tax state. In 1968, Ronald Reagan passed the largest tax increase any state had ever approved-yet Arnold and every Republican in the Legislator are adamant that raising taxes will destroy California.

Schrag is at his best and most valuable when describing the savaging of California’s once-prized educational system.

Prior to Governor Reagan, our state’s colleges had no tuition. Per capita school spending was among the highest in the nation.

Since the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, however, California per student spending is closer on the national scale to Mississippi than to Minnesota. Schrag discusses the politics behind this reduction in school spending, and was the first journalist to demonstrate how the unwillingness of the state’s white retirees to vote for school funding has derailed reform efforts.

In the 1960’s the state’s school population was largely Caucasian. Politicians and voters saw school funding as an investment in the future. But as Schrag describes, things changed when Latino immigrants started filling California schools. White voters who no longer had kids in schools changed their attitudes about paying taxes for “those people.”

Governor Pat Brown (Jerry’s father) spent his tenure from 1958-1966 building a public infrastructure for California that was the envy of the nation. But that was before the anti-tax fervor dictated state spending.

Schrag shows how the state is still living off Brown’s massive public investment, and no longer has the money to expand. It is nothing short of shameful that the number of UC campuses has remained unchanged despite massive state population growth in the last three decades.

We “can’t afford” to open the planned UC Merced campus, because Governor Schwarzenegger preferred to cancel the vehicular license fee increase. But voters were incensed about the increase and the Governor gave them what they wanted.

Schrag’s refusal to simply blame politicians for the state’s failing health care system, its poor schools, and decaying infrastructure sets Paradise Lost apart from other critiques of government.

As Schrag implicitly predicted, the no-tax increase, no public investment politics of California became America’s future during the Bush years. Tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts are the guiding principles of current American domestic policy, despite the poor track record of such policies on stimulating economic growth.

Schrag’s book will not make you feel better about what happened and is still happening in California, but he identifies those people and policies responsible. In naming names and laying out the facts in an easy to read manner, Schrag has performed an invaluable service for those still committed to a more just and equitable California.

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