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Joe Mathews and Mark Paul
California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

University of California Press
US First Edition, Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-0-520-26656-8
Publication Date: 08-04-2010
240 pages; $19.99
Date Reviewed: 03-30-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction

Every day brings more news, none of it good. I live in California, and the State Budget here is so bollixed, it seems unfixable. Every attempt to fix it is stymied by the reforms we put in place to make sure there would never be any problems. I agreed with and even voted for some of the very reforms that are now being used to tie the state up in knots. How did we become so democratic that we can't get anything done?

'California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It' (University of California Press ; August 4, 2010 ; $19.95) is a short, snappy look at the history of California, and the history of reform — with solutions. It might seem that it would be of interest only to those who reside here, and indeed for state residents, it should be required reading. It's quite an eye-opener. But the lessons un-learned here, the problems we see here, are seeping outward from California. The dynamic we have created is a dynamic that is sapping not just our state, but our nation, and by virtue of that, affecting the entire world. If good intentions pave the way to hell, here is the master map for a short trip to the Underworld.

Mathews and Paul approach the problem as apolitical historians. There is no party agenda here, because in hell, we're all equally damned. In fact they take a perspective that will resonate with many readers; they ask how, "an extraterrestrial Alexis De Tocqueville, well-read in California history and deeply versed in political practices elsewhere on this globe — would diagnose California's ailments?" Their answers are smart, entertaining and thought-provoking.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, "Building and Breaking California," is a well-written storytelling history of California, and it is not what you get taught in schools. Mathews and Paul describe a state that knew its power before it was a state, a state that literally threw itself together in a few hurried meetings in Monterey. That beginning haunts us to this day. With a weak foundation, the architects of California thought it would be a good idea to bring direct democracy into play, with a heavy emphasis on the initiative as a means of legislation. This created an initiative industry, which sold and still sells its services for the highest price it can extract on the open market. California's constitution has become a legislative analogue for its famous Winchester Mystery House; rooms are built on rooms and laws used to plaster over other laws until it becomes impossible to legislate effectively.

Worse still, many of our budgetary laws are enshrined in the state Constitution. Combine this with the 2/3 majority necessary to increases taxes and you have the recipe for an extended stay in the underworld. The nation's greatest state, with its largest economy is currently being held hostage by four individuals; the tyranny of the minority has been confirmed. Past segues seamlessly into the present in a compelling vision that applies not just to California, but to any emerging democracy.

The second half of the book offers fixes that are both achievable and realistic. The authors are just as lucid when it comes to solutions as they are when they are describing problems. They're also entertaining and refreshingly free of ideological and party agendas. This is not a book that is going to make members of either political party here in California or the United States particularly happy. However, those who read it have a lot to gain. It's an entertaining and pertinent history that offers suggestions that are applicable well beyond California — and utterly essential here. The writers know how to use a sort of wry humor to defuse the gloom that hangs over us all. If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, the path back out is paved with good books.

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