California Warning

The Mamas and the Papas sang about California Dreaming.  Things have changed in the Golden State since the ’60s, however.  Now, whenever I enter the California-plated rental car for our little trip through southern Arizona and New Mexico, I get a weird  California Warning.

It’s a big, intrusive notice plastered right there on the driver’s side door that tells me that operating a motor vehicle can be hazardous to my health.  You see, the State of California apparently knows — hey, that’s the word the notice uses — that engine exhaust, carbon monoxide, phthalates (how is that pronounced, anyway?), and lead cause cancer and birth defects.  So what’s a driver to do?  Well, the notice says you should avoid breathing exhaust fumes and idling your engine, you should service your vehicle — I think that means gas it up when the tank runs dry — in a well-ventilated area, and you should wear gloves or wash your hands frequently when servicing your vehicle.

From the look of the notice, it appears that California voters enacted one of their voter propositions — in this case, Proposition 65 — that requires the notice.  In fact, Proposition 65 was passed in 1986 and, among other things, requires the State of California to assemble and publish a list of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects — which now includes about 800 chemicals — and obligates businesses to notify consumers about chemicals in products. Hence, the Big Brother-type notice on our rental car.

I have to say that the notice gives me a laugh every time I get into the car.  Why?  Because, based on what I’ve seen of California, it’s got to be one of the most ignored — even flouted — notices in the history of governmental notices.  Californians don’t exactly seem to be avoiding their cars; California traffic congestion is easily one of the worst in any state.  And because of that, Californians are routinely breathing in those bad exhaust fumes as they wait in a colossal traffic jam on “the Santa Monica Freeway” or “the 405” or any of the countless other highways that are always subject to a traffic snarl at any time of the day or night.  And I haven’t noticed Californians donning gloves at the filling station as they fuel their cars or rushing to wash their hands after gassing up, either.  Apparently they’ve made the rational judgment that washing your hands in one of those gross, soiled sinks in a gas station bathroom is more hazardous that those phthalates.

By the way, phthalates are pronounced ftha-lates.

On The Shores Of Lake Schiller

Thanks to the melting of the snow we got over the weekend, followed by the persistent rains that fell more recently, Schiller Park had become Lake Schiller this morning, with many of the pathways completely flooded.  The whole area had a certain ghostly beauty under the light fixtures, with the watery areas just beginning to freeze as the temperature dropped.

I imagine the Columbus water reservoirs are full to bursting, given the amount of precipitation we’ve received already this winter.  If California wants to bring an end to its long-standing drought, I’m sure the water-logged states of the Midwest would be happy to work out a trade in which our excess water is swapped for the Golden State’s excess sunshine.

Calithreenia

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a curious measure on the California ballot this November.  The proposal would split California into three different states that would be separately governed.  The last time that happened with an existing state was 1863, when loyalist West Virginia broke off from secessionist Virginia during the Civil War.

202574-fullThe three new states that would be created by the proposal are “Northern California,” which runs from the northern border of the current state to the middle of the state and includes cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento, “Southern California,” which runs from the middle of the state down to the border with Mexico and includes cities like San Diego, Anaheim, and Fresno, and “California,” which is geographically much smaller in size and encompasses California’s crowded coastal area, running from Long Beach in the south up to Monterey in the middle of the state and including Los Angeles.  Whatever else you might think of the proposal, I think we can all agree it fails miserably in the “creative state naming” area.

The ballot measure was spearheaded and funded by a venture capitalist who apparently has made it his life’s mission to break California up.  Previously, he tried to split the state into six parts — which he now thinks was just too many for voters to stomach.  “This is a chance for three fresh approaches to government,” he told a newspaper in an interview.  “Three new states could become models not only for the rest of the country, but for the whole world.”

When I was out in California recently, I asked some people about the ballot measure and what they thought.  I didn’t find any proponents, but did find people who were worried less about becoming models for the world and more about practical things — like water, which is a pretty scarce commodity in what would be “Southern California” and is primarily supplied by “Northern California.”  There also would be challenging questions involved in allocating infrastructure and accounting for its cost.  And the people I spoke to also indicated that they like the Golden State the way it is — a big, sprawling, incredibly diverse state that offers lots of different climates and geographical areas and encompasses some of the country’s most iconic cities.

Even if California voters pass the measure, the break-up apparently would need to be approved by Congress, which would be no sure thing.  It’s not at all clear that other parts of the country would want to add four new Senators from the west coast — or two more stars to the national flag.  Fifty is a good, round number.  52?  Not so much.

Sunrise At Spyglass

We’re moved up and into the mountains due east of Los Angeles, near Lake Arrowhead, where my California Sister-In-Law has a beautiful vacation home called Spyglass. The surroundings are about as different from San Diego as you could imagine. We’ve gone from palmy to piney, and from the commanding heights of the CSIL’s deck you can look east, through a gap in the tree cover, and let your gaze wander over miles of forested expanse to part of the high desert and other mountain ranges at the far horizon.

I got up early, fixed myself a good cup of coffee, and enjoyed the sunrise this morning. It was so still that you wanted to hold your breath, with the absolute quiet breached only by an occasional cry of a native bird. I wasn’t sure you could find any location in Southern California where you could totally get away from highway noise, but here it is.

Los Angeles Homelessness

Los Angeles has a huge, and growing, problem with homeless residents.  According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, as many as 58,000 people in Los Angeles are living on the streets.

It’s a staggering number.  Even for a city as big as Los Angeles, with a population of about 4 million, 58,000 people is a lot.  To put some Midwestern perspective on that number, those 58,000 homeless people are just a bit below the population of the 10th-largest city in Ohio.

Along some Los Angeles streets, rows of makeshift tents, shelters, and shanties house the homeless.  You can see some of the pictures of the encampments and the homeless here.  And what’s even more astonishing is that the tent cities of the homeless have been there for years, and seem to be spreading and growing — and nothing is being done about it.  The homelessness problem is getting progressively worse.

How can 58,000 people be homeless and living on the streets?  As for the why, there doesn’t seem to be one particular answer:  some are mentally ill, some are addicted, some are simply destitute.  And for that reason, there’s no single answer to the problem, either.  Some of the people need treatment.  Some of the people need a job and a hand up.  But whatever the solution, the notion of tent cities of 58,000 people raises so many obvious problems — health problems, sanitation problems, crime problems, security problems — that it simply can’t be tolerated.  And yet, in Los Angeles, it is.

I don’t know what the answer to LA’s homelessness crisis is, but if I were a voter in that city I would demand that the city government start aggressively dealing with the problem and determining appropriate, humane ways to get those 58,000 people off the streets.  And I would also ask:  why is the state of California spending billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail system in the California desert when there are thousands of people living in tents on the streets of L.A.?

Restaurant Closing Time

Sometimes, notwithstanding our wishes and hopes, we just can’t change or escape the basic laws of economics.  California restaurants are learning this lesson — one that so many other businesses have learned in so many other settings for so many years.

A number of California communities, including San Francisco, have decided that they should legislate substantial increases to the minimum wage, so that the minimum wage will reach $15 — a number that was picked not through the guidance of the invisible hand of supply and demand, but because it sounds goods when politicians promise it.  Basic laws of economics will tell you that if you increase the costs for a business, the business has only a few options:  either absorb the increase by cutting costs in other areas (or accepting lower profits), or increase their prices to make up for the extra costs, or recognize that you just can’t make the economics of the business work and close your doors.  In California, a number of restaurants have decided that the latter route is the only viable option.

o-restaurant-worker-facebookIn the Bay Area, at least 60 restaurants have closed since September, and as a result a number of line cooks, car valets, dishwashers, table bussers, and waiters — the people who were supposed to be helped by the $15 minimum wage initiatives, incidentally — have lost their jobs.  These results in the San Francisco area, where wages for starting workers are higher than in less affluent parts of the state, are leaving some Californians who aren’t living in economic dreamland wondering what the effects will be when a statewide minimum wage takes effect and inland areas, which already have higher unemployment numbers and where starting pay is correspondingly lower, are affected.

This restaurant closing effect shouldn’t be a surprise.  Many restaurants run on very thin margins as it is, trying to find that magic balance between quality food and reasonable prices and cool ambiance that diners are looking for.  They don’t have big profit margins that can simply absorb higher wages.  If minimum-wage legislation substantially increases their costs, most restaurants just don’t have the option of jacking up their prices because they know they are going to lose their more cost-sensitive patrons.  And there really aren’t many other areas in which restaurants can make up for increased labor costs.  Tinker with the quality of the food, or the ingredients, or the portion size, and you’ll likely end up losing your more discriminating patrons — and many restauranteurs who are passionate about food probably wouldn’t want to change how they prepare dishes, anyway.  So the logical option, unfortunately, is closing.

In short, the five-star joints, where there is less price sensitivity and where the wages may already be higher, will survive, but many of the more basic restaurants will struggle and close.  The cause-and-effect relationship is so predictable that a recent academic study found that every $1 hike in the minimum wage brings a 14 percent increase in the likelihood that a 3.5-star restaurant on Yelp! will close its doors.

The people who are advocating for large increases in the minimum wage no doubt are well-intentioned, but their efforts ultimately are misguided because you simply cannot ignore, or legislate away, the laws of economics.   How many times do we have to see this play before people start getting the plot?

Publishing Actors’ Ages

Let’s say you were concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, where male stars seem to get roles no matter their age, while female actors — other than the peripatetic Meryl Streep — seem to have difficulty getting cast once they hit 45 or 50.  Would you:

(a) notify everyone in the film industry that you were assigning an extra investigator to specifically focus on enforcing existing laws against age discrimination in the industry;

(b) decide that current federal and state law wasn’t sufficient and therefore enact new legislation directly regulating age discrimination at the movie studios that make the films; or

(c) enact a law preventing internet sites, including specifically the IMDb website, from publishing actors’ ages and date of birth information.

Weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly — California chose option 3.  Yesterday a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that “it’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment” because it bars IMDb from publishing purely factual information on its website for public consumption.  And, the court found that although preventing age discrimination in Hollywood is “a compelling goal,” California did not show the new law is “necessary” to advance that goal.  The judge added:  “In fact, it’s not clear how preventing one mere website from publishing age information could meaningfully combat discrimination at all. And even if restricting publication on this one website could confer some marginal antidiscrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end. For example, although the government asserts generically that age discrimination continues in Hollywood despite the long-time presence of antidiscrimination laws, the government fails to explain why more vigorous enforcement of those laws would not be at least as effective at combatting age discrimination as removing birthdates from a single website.”  You can read the judge’s pointed, three-page ruling here.

This conclusion is not surprising to anyone who understands the First Amendment, and presumably didn’t come as a surprise to the lawyers trying to defend California’s law, either.  All of which begs the question of why California legislators enacted it in the first place — and that’s where the “maybe not so weirdly” comment from above comes in.  I’m sure the Hollywood community is, collectively, a big-time contributor to political campaigns on a California state level, just as it is on a national level.  If you were a politician who wanted to say that you had done something to address age discrimination in Hollywood, but without doing anything that might actually, adversely affect the rivers of cash flowing to your campaigns from the big studios, supporting a law that affects only an internet website that actors hate because it discloses how old they really are is a much safer bet.

It’s nice to know that we have federal judges who understand what the First Amendment means, even if California’s elected representatives are clueless.  And if those legislators are so concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, maybe they’ll actually do something about it — rather than just taking steps to block speech they don’t like.

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Sunday Sour Savor

It’s been a busy weekend, but now the chores are done, the groceries have been put away, and the car is refueled.  With a good book to enjoy — Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, a terrific collection of short stories inspired by the world’s first, and forever foremost, consulting detective — and only a few idle hours remaining before the work week begins again, it’s time to lean back and crack open a sour.  Today, it’s a Farmer’s Reserve Nectarine brewed by the Almanac Beer Company in Northern California.  Try it before California secedes from the Union and import duties make it crushingly expensive.  It’s light and tart and very fine, indeed.  (Thanks, Emily!)

Sunday afternoons are to be savored, even in a crazy world.

Getting Him Off His Rock

Say you want to propose to your long-time girlfriend.  Should you (a) go to the place you first met, fall to one knee and present an engagement ring as in old-time movies, (b) pop the question at the end of a romantic meal at a fine restaurant that is a mutual favorite, or (c) ignore a climbing ban and scale a 600-foot outcropping called Morro Rock on the California coastline so you can make your marriage proposal via the Facetime app?

morrowrockModern times being what they are, of course one guy chose (c).  Although his girlfriend said yes, the whole exercise didn’t work out so well for him.  He got stuck on the way down, became stranded on a sheer ledge 80 feet off the ground, and had to be rescued by a California Highway Patrol crew and helicopter; then he was arrested for suspicion of possession of methamphetamine because he was acting “strangely.”

Acting strangely?  You think?  When it comes time to ask someone to spend the rest of their life with you, you decide the best way to do it is to scale a rock and do it remotely, via an app?  That doesn’t exactly send a message about “we” rather than “me,” does it?

The BBC report on this story says that the rock climber will be asked to pay for the cost of his rescue, and I certainly hope that is true.  I’m heartily sick and tired of adventurers and thrill-seekers deciding to take unnecessary risks by parachuting into remote mountain ranges or climbing sheer rock faces or helicoptering  to inaccessible ski areas, getting trapped or stranded, and then becoming the subject of massive and expensive search-and-rescue operations.  They’re taking stupid risks for their own self-aggrandizement, and the taxpayer shouldn’t end up paying the bill for their folly.

As for the girlfriend who said yes, I hope she reconsiders.

Santa Barbara Scene

  
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Long Beach, and San Diego, but much of California north of LA — such as Santa Barbara — is unknown to me.

It’s nice to get a chance to visit a new place and experience the geography firsthand.  I’d heard that Santa Barbara was pretty, but I had no idea the coastline was so rugged. It reminds me a bit of Maine, but it offers its own rocky charms — and a few offshore platforms to boot.  After a flight seated next to a screaming kid and a two-hour taste of LA-area traffic, the charms of Santa Barbara beachfront were much appreciated.

Water Politics

It’s raining here in Columbus this morning, just as it does virtually every day in April.  I can hear the patter of raindrops against windowpanes and the rumble of thunder rolling from east to west.  These deeply familiar sounds are symbols of what Ohio and the Midwest has in abundance — fresh water, pouring down from the skies, puddling on sidewalks, sluicing down streets to storm drains, and rushing into roaring rivers and streams.  We check the forecast, grab umbrellas and don raincoats, and mutter about another rainy day.

IMG_5116But what we mutter about, southern California craves.  An area that always has been water-challenged is now water-deprived, as it experiences another year of punishing drought.  Water, the most basic building block of life, will be rationed in southern California, by edict of Governor Jerry Brown and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Los Angeles will have to cut consumption by 20 percent, and other communities will have to reduce use by 35 percent.  It’s as if the people of SoCal were living in a castle under siege — except it’s Mother Nature who is employing the siege tactics.

None of this is surprising for the residents of southern California, who have been hearing about dwindling water supplies for years.  But officials have noticed an odd phenomenon — as the water supply crisis has become more dire, some people in southern California are increasing their use of water.  Presumably those people have concluded that water restrictions are coming, anyway, so they might was well take an extra-long shower or increase their lawn sprinkler use before the restrictions arrive.  And that apparent “what the hell” attitude has caused the water regulators to argue that they have no choice but to impose mandatory restrictions and punitive charges on water users who exceed the limits.

It’s not entirely clear how the restrictions will affect individuals, yet.  There’s probably no risk of jackbooted water police ripping out sprinkler systems or kicking in the doors of home to install low-flow shower heads, but the people of southern California ultimately will have to accept the inevitable conclusion that there are too many people, animals, and plants in the region in view of the limited water supplies.  Heavily watered green lawns will be replaced by native desert plants, showers will be dribbles rather than blasts, and parks and common areas will have to change.  And the people involved in California’s enormous agricultural sector will have to figure out how to make do with less H2O.

Ultimately these restrictions are the price that must be paid when too many people decide to live in a desert.  Who knows?  Maybe some of those people, tired of feeling dirty and looking at brown surroundings, may decide to relocate to places where steaming showers and green grass are the norm.  Golden Staters, you’re welcome here in the Midwest.

The Constitutionality Of Teacher Tenure

Last week in California a state-court judge declared that the state statute establishing teacher tenure violated the state constitutional right to an education.  The court held that the tenure statutes disproportionately adversely affected poor and minority students, because the worst teachers protected by the statute are assigned to their schools.  The evidence of the negative impact, the court found, “shocks the conscience.”

Much of the news coverage of the decision has focused on the impact on teachers’ unions — a powerful voice in the powerful field of public employee unions.  The head of one of the unions affected by the California ruling said that the judge fell prey to anti-union sentiment and rhetoric and that teachers were being unfairly scapegoated for the problems that exist in public education.  Those arguments will be tested:  the court’s decision is just the first step in what will likely be a long litigation and appeal process.

As I read the reports on the California decision, I had two reactions.  First, we’ve become an increasingly judge-driven society, in which courts and litigants are using constitutional provisions to overturn statutes and popular referendums.  We applaud court rulings when we agree with their effect, but a heightened judicial role is a two-way street.  I’m sure California teachers never dreamed that a constitutional right to education could be used to overturn a hard-won legislative victory on teacher tenure.  And judicial involvement in policy-making can be complicated:  if the existing California system of hiring and firing teachers is struck down, what will replace it?  Legislative enactments are detailed and specific and supplemented by regulation; judicial rulings are much more high level.

Second, the concept of tenure — which was a means of ensuring academic freedom at the college and post-graduate level — does not fit well at the elementary and secondary school level.  The idea was that professors who had proven their merit after years of work should be free to explore research or prepare writings that addressed controversial topics without worrying about being fired by those who disagreed with their conclusions.  How does that translate to the public school setting, where curriculums are increasingly dictated by federal and state laws and regulations?  In California, the state law overturned by the court seemed motivated less by notions of academic freedom and more by simple job preservation:  teachers became tenured after only two years, strict seniority rules required that the newest teachers would be laid off first, and a welter of rules and procedures made it practically impossible to discharge incompetent tenured teachers.

We can expect to see more efforts to use broadly phrased state constitutional provisions to modify existing public policy, and more wrangling about teachers.  They are on the front lines of public education and inevitably will be targets as people grow increasingly concerned about the state of our public schools and what to do about them.

Shakin’, Bakin’, And Earthquakin’

There was an earthquake in southern California last night.

The earthquake was a 5.1 in magnitude, causing merchandise to fall off the shelves of stores — and, no doubt, causing Californians to wonder whether it was the first little tremor in the Big One that every resident of the Golden State quietly fears may someday be coming. The precariously lodged tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault shift, the ground moves, and as the world rumbles, for a cold split second, everyone wonders how long it will last and how bad it will be. Then it is over, and life goes on.

I’ve only felt an earthquake once, and it was small tremor that touched Columbus from a epicenter that was far away. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the ground slithering and grinding before my feet. It must be a strange sensation — and also one that you just come to accept as a risk of living in California or one of the other earthquake zones in the world. Some of the world’s most beautiful places pose risks of hurricanes, or mudslides, or earthquakes, or floods, or other natural disasters. If you live there, it’s part of the tradeoff.

If you go to the earthquake page of the U.S. Geological Service, you see that earthquakes and aftershocks are commonplaces in California. Each of those incidents would be deeply memorable, long-discussed events for those of us in the solid-grounded Midwest. How many of our friends in California even notice all of them?