California in Crisis

To the editor:
Joel Kotkin’s article [“The Golden State’s War on Itself,” Summer 2010] neglects to mention the costly public policies and lawsuit abuses pushed by construction trade unions since the 1990s. To save their dwindling market share, these unions have resorted to lobbying for complicated new “prevailing wage” laws and regulations at the state and local level and Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) at the local level. Many of the toughest obstacles to building new infrastructure in California originate with the anticompetitive political agenda of construction unions.

Kevin Dayton
Associated Builders and Contractors of California
Livermore, CA

To the editor:
The two big infrastructure projects that the author mentions as among what the “good” progressives did in the first half of the twentieth century—the L.A. Aqueduct and the Hetch Hetchy dam—were dishonest undertakings, with mixed effects at best. The aqueduct did have the eventual effect of making urban Southern California possible. But, like the Hetch Hetchy dam, it pulled considerable wool over everyone’s eyes to accomplish a self-serving goal. Hetch Hetchy’s promoters bamboozled the federal government into taking action that the promoters would profit from, notwithstanding that it was an apparently unnecessary dam that despoiled a priceless part of Yosemite’s natural splendor.

Amy Roth
San Diego, CA

To the editor:
“Lavish pensions for bureaucrats”? The average pension for a public employee paid by CalPERS, the largest pension organization, is $2,188 a month. That’s not lavish, kids. Destroying the middle-class residents who are public employees is not going to solve the problem but make it worse. The number of state employees in California ranks next-to-last per capita among the states. Yep, 49th out of 50 states. Public employees aren’t the problem. Liberal policies are.

Scott Slotterbeck, II
Sacramento, CA

Joel Kotkin responds:
Kevin Dayton has a good point. There is a strong alliance among unions (in this case, construction unions are very much like public-sector ones), the greens, and the political bureaucracy. The entire broker state is killing California’s economy, except for the elite sectors that can afford it and can do most of their construction in other parts of the country or, increasingly, other countries.

To Amy Roth I can cite the quotation attributed to Balzac: “Behind every fortune lies a crime.” No doubt the people who built these projects were often unethical, but they created the possibility of mass settlement of California. William Mulholland made many mistakes, but Los Angeles as a great city would not exist without him. The Progressives were far from perfect, but they at least believed in human progress. This is more than I can say for their contemporary namesakes.

The figures that Scott Slotterbeck cites are a bit misleading. Most public services in California are delivered at the county level, which is largely funded through the state. Pensions have been growing at a huge rate, and since they’re not based on IRAs, the public is on the hook in good times and, more often, in bad times. Public employees can be a good thing, but they have allied themselves with policies that are destroying our economy and that, ironically, will lead to significant reductions in state employees and their benefits. This could occur even under their current hero, Jerry Brown, who may prove more ruthless and certainly more Machiavellian than Meg Whitman on her best (or worst) days.


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