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.

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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.