California has always been a state of mind as much as a state of the union. To millions around the world, the great dream of California has sprung from its frontierlike openness, its willingness to accept all kinds of people and try new things. Far from East Coast orthodoxy and Washington political intrigue, California embraced anti-establishment thinking and a gold-rush mentality in a dazzling manner. Metaphor and magnet, California drew to itself the quirky mix that created the twin miracles of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Things worked in California. Now they don't.
The collapse of the electricity system, with its Third World-like brownouts, is only the most obvious example. California once had a jewel of a public education system. It provided upward mobility to all. Today, it is a shambles. California invented the freeway, built Roman-scale aqueducts, and put up housing for all classes of people. Today, roads are crowded, water is getting limited, and affordable housing is lacking.
What happened? Starting in the '80s, California turned against itself. Common goals to build a special kind of place to live were replaced by bitter ideological divisions. California became sclerotic and divisive. On the right, conservatives passed Proposition 13, which cut taxes and starved public education. On the left, eco-extremism stopped the building of power plants, limiting the generation of electricity even as the state economy boomed and demand soared. In some parts of California, there was no urban or regional planning, and sprawling chaos resulted. In other parts, there were such tight limits to growth that little could be built. High-tech manufacturers shifted production to Texas, Idaho, and Oregon.
California's power crisis, like many other crises facing it, is self-inflicted. A quirky mix of talent, entrepreneurialism, and finance has carried Silicon Valley through high-tech downturns in the past and could again. But this time, the devastating failure of public policy could make recovery difficult. After all, without electricity, server farms don't work. Without good schools, roads, and water, California doesn't work, period.