Here’s a trip report on four days spent in the East Bay (Berkeley, Oakland, Piedmont), primarily with people who work or study at the University of California, Berkeley and people who have high-tech jobs.
Bitterness against Republicans in general and King Bush II in particular is commonly expressed. We tried to go over to the Berkeley Art Museum to see paintings recently given to the museum by Fernando Botero: The Abu Ghraib series. Unfortunately the museum was closed along with every other University of California building, due to lack of funds. Whose fault is that? According to all of the East Bayers with whom I spoke, the Republican-sponsored Proposition 13 is to blame. Ever since this initiative passed in 1978, the state has been starved for funds. I pointed out that California collects a larger percentage of its citizens’ income than all but five other states (10.5 percent; source). Shouldn’t it be possible to run the state on 10.5 percent of income?
Despite the fact that all of my interlocutors had university educations, sometimes including PhDs, all were so deeply invested in the idea that their insolvent state government is starved for revenue that they were unable to parse the information. They all replied that of course California needed more money than the average state because it had a larger population, thinking that I had said California collected more total dollars than all but five other states. None could accept the idea that their state had a spending problem rather than a revenue problem and everyone thought that more money should be collected “from rich people” (these folks, if only by virtue of owning houses in Berkeley, were rich by American standards, but they defined “rich” as “more than $50 million in assets”; nobody considered the idea that wealthy people could easily pick up and move to states with lower taxes). None would accept the idea that their state and local government were no longer there to serve current citizens, that they existed primarily to pay pension obligations incurred decades earlier (more).
For roughly 60 years, Berkeley has offered more services to its residents than virtually any other city in the U.S. The schools are expensively funded. Welfare programs have been lavish. People can borrow a full set of tools from the public library. There is a non-profit organization on every block. Yet Berkeley has a poverty rate of 21 percent, higher than the state average of 12 percent (source). The school system tracks student performance by race and ethnicity so that they can reveal to local employers that “white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse” (source). Anywhere else in the country one would be considered a vicious racist for claiming that black and Latino high school students are intellectually inferior to white and Asian students, but in Berkeley broadcasting this information marks one as a concerned humanitarian. Sixty years of failure had not daunted any of the East Bayers with whom I spoke; all were in favor of even bigger and more expensive government.
Given the cheerleading for government expansion, I would have thought that the latest $1 trillion health care spending initiative in Congress would have delighted Berkeleyites. “The Republicans gutted the bill,” one woman said, “by removing the public option. So it isn’t a fair test of what government could do.” How about the ascendancy of Barack Obama, which should give the U.S. eight years of the kind of political philosophy that Berkeley folks have espoused for decades. “He’s a moderate, not a liberal,” was the response. Thus if the extra trillions of dollars in borrowing and spending and eight years of Barack Obama does not usher in prosperity, the fault is that Obama and Congress did not grow the government’s share of GDP sufficiently.
Big government is working reasonably well for a U.C. Berkeley scientist who received $250,000 in stimulus money for scientific research. He explained “I’m going to spend all of it in Europe and Japan; I’m stimulating the global economy.”
When not pointing out the evilness of Republicans and the idiocy of Americans who vote for them, my Berkeley friends turned their attention to denouncing the second largest force for evil in the world: Israel. Due to the state-wide out-of-money shutdown, there was no chance of a West Bank checkpoint on the U.C. campus (http://calsjp.org/ has the schedule for these), but the rest of the anti-Israel industry was up and running. I asked folks whether they couldn’t at least admire the Israeli health care system, which provides universal coverage (not leaving millions of people out, like our new one) and superb results, all at a cost close to what a Golden Retriever owner would pay here for high quality vet care. The response was that apparent Israeli achievements are not due to hard work by Israelis, but are a result of rich Jews in the U.S. sending so much money to Israel (this study reveals that the total amounts to roughly 0.4 percent of Israel’s GDP; if withdrawn, each employed Israeli would have to work one additional day per year). I wondered aloud whether Americans didn’t have it even easier, with our near-infinite supply of natural resources. We’ve had free land, free water, oil, minerals, etc., all from the big plot of land that we stole from the Indians. Aren’t we Americans the ones who have been enjoying a 400-year tailwind? (A tailwind that is a lot less powerful now that we’ve expanded the population to 300 million and sucked many of the resources dry.) Nope. It was the Jews who got the unfairly good deal.
Berkeley students and faculty have recently been protesting tuition and fee hikes, but there haven’t been any protests about government borrowing and spending. Depending on your assumptions about how long pensioned government employees will live, wages in the U.S., and investment returns, it is quite possible that a Berkeley graduate who stays in California will find that local, state, and federal governments have already spent 80 percent of his lifetime earnings. Students aren’t protesting increased government spending or advocating any cuts, however, but only demanding more spending on their parochial concerns. Neither are East Bay parents complaining about government spending; they are dealing with the risk of a future U.S. economic collapse by getting foreign passports for their children. [Parenting in Berkeley can be a little more creative than in the rest of the U.S. One family invited me to share a meal with their “dinner co-op” partners, another family with a kid about the same age. They trade off cooking dinner every Monday evening. “By the way,” my friend noted, “there are two mommies in this other family.”]
I had breakfast with two white males. One founded a mobile phone tech company and mentioned that they are soon to go public. He is already pretty rich but stands to make tens of millions of dollars in the IPO. Our entrepreneur grew up in the U.S., attended the best private schools, and then went on to the most elite universities. His family happens to come from Argentina. I asked the other white male at the table, a wage slave for a big company, how he would feel if his own daughter were rejected from college in favor of the rich entrepreneur’s kid, due to that child’s Hispanic status. This turned out not to be a tough question. Of course he wanted his daughter to go to the most prestigious school, but Affirmative Action was important and his own daughter would surely get into at least some college somewhere. So on balance he thought it would be fair for his daughter to be rejected.
I met a friend picking up his laptop from an independent Macintosh repair store, with lower prices than the official sleek Apple stores. A minor whack had caused the power connector to fail internally. His love for the Mac was not diminished when I pointed out that the repair bill was about the same as what Dell charged for a brand new computer. The other Macintosh experience that I had was trying to use a Flip video camera with an iMac (vastly inferior user experience) and listening to the owner talk about how much easier to use and more reliable the Macintosh was than Windows. The only problem that he’d had with his machine recently was the loss of three months of data: all writing, photos, and video.
After the Macintosh repair shop, we stopped into the Brower Center, which calls itself “Berkeley’s greenest building” and is packed with non-profit organizations that are determined to stop stupid people in the rest of the U.S. from trashing the planet. The building is named for David Brower, famous for being pushed out of the Sierra Club when he pointed out that immigration was going to ruin the environment of the U.S. (more). In 2000, Brower thought that the U.S. would be a pleasant place to live with 150 million people (what we had around 1950) and an unpleasant place with the 600 million that we were forecast to have by 2100. As of 2008, the experts were forecasting a 2100 population closer to 1 billion (source). Brower’s legacy is a building featuring a cavernous two-story atrium and high ceilings everywhere. On a day with temperatures of about 55 degrees outside, the environmentalists’ building was heated to more than 80 degrees. We stripped off all of the clothes that we could.
At a CVS in Oakland, we bought sundries from a 70-year-old working as a cashier. I asked my local companion if he thought it was moral for the government to tax this poor old working person and hand the money over to a comfortable 50-year-old retired former public employee, which is essentially how California is now set up. He had not thought about the question.
A white man told me how proud he was of his year-long dialog with an angry young black student back when he was an undergraduate at an Ivy League university. “When we first met,” he said, “I said that he should admit that we were mostly alike, despite our difference in skin color. He replied that there was no way that I could understand the rage of a black man. We spent a whole year working this out and I came to understand his point of view.” My response was that perhaps his first idea was correct. Could it be that black and white Americans are mostly alike? We spend our time talking about skin tone while the Chinese grow their economy at 9 percent per year.
One nice thing about living in Berkeley is that you can be sure that God agrees with whatever you’re thinking. If God didn’t agree with and love you, why would would He pour down good weather and sunshine on Berkeley almost every day?