Learning from California

The acclaimed television drama "Mad Men" is set in Manhattan in the early 1960s. The focus is a fast-paced Madison Avenue advertising agency. The suit-and-tie ad execs quaff hard liquor at work, smoke constantly and utter sexist comments about their secretaries. It's a great show, extremely well done, depicting a bygone era that at once sickens and evokes nostalgic feelings.

For a couple of episodes last season, the setting shifted to Los Angeles, where two of the ad men traveled for a convention. The show's creators made a point of contrasting New York and L.A., with the latter depicted as a sunny, relaxed paradise, a place where people lounge around the pool rather than work themselves to death.

And in the early '60s, it's fair to say that California was at or near the peak of its reputation as the land of milk and honey. The pictures painted so brightly by Beach Boys songs and Elvis Presley movies had it just about right.

Fast forward to 2009. The California Dream is a distant memory. It was great while it lasted, but the present is terrible and the future doesn't look much better.

It's easy enough for Las Vegans visiting California this summer -- as so many of us did -- not to have noticed much amiss. Las Vegas families flocking to Disneyland and the Southern California beaches blithely enjoyed themselves amid the Mickey Mouse ears and roaring surf.

But if they had read the papers while on vacation, they would have known that beyond the tourist spots, California is a big mess. Los Angeles journalist Marc Cooper, writing in the Aug. 17 issue of The Nation magazine, expertly documents the carnage. He notes that the recession has hammered poor and rich alike, and that things have gotten so bad that some California officials have appealed to the federal government for disaster relief.

The epicenter of the economic earthquake is Sacramento, the capital, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators recently endured an epic struggle to pass a balanced budget. They finally agreed on a plan that takes a hatchet to a range of state-funded services, including, most painfully, education.

"When the budget details were unveiled," Cooper writes, "It was like viewing the emaciated corpse of a once great state."

Cooper quips, without much humor, that "the only winners in this deal were felons." Because of prison budget cuts, the state plans to gradually reduce its prison population by 27,000.

You know things are really bad when a growing number of important people are talking seriously about holding a constitutional convention.

That may be the only solution to the Golden State's tangled political situation, which has been complicated and compromised endlessly in recent decades by initiative petition drives and other measures that require the state to do certain things and prohibit its lawmakers from doing other things, all leading to today's financial quagmire.

So, here we are in neighboring Nevada, which has long depended on and lived in California's shadow. We have budget issues of our own, of course, though somehow, at least for now, our political leaders figured out how to not totally foul up everything. What should we learn from the mistakes of our fallen neighbor?

The first lesson I take away is we shouldn't further restrict what the Legislature can and can't do when it comes to budgeting. We hold elections to select people to represent us in Carson City. It's not a perfect system, but it's the best one we've come up with. We shouldn't handcuff our elected representatives when it comes to making the hard decisions about taxing and spending.

For example, we must avoid measures like Proposition 13, which California passed in 1978, reducing the property tax to 1 percent of cash value per year. This was and is great for property owners, but it simply forced the nation's largest state to raise the state income tax. And when the big recession hit, California incomes nose-dived, resulting in a commensurate drop in state tax revenue.

We also should avoid the government sprawl of California. Although Nevada government services still have room to grow, even local liberals can see that California has gone too far with the notion that there's a government solution to every social and environmental problem.

Of course, perspective is important. While California appears to be in economic ruins, for many people it remains a desirable place to live and work. Nevada has no ocean, inferior higher education and an economy dependent on gambling and partying. It may come as a surprise to those of us who live here, but not everybody is drawn to our endless desert party.

In light of California's economic woes, the Nevada Development Authority is pushing like mad for California companies to move here. But this campaign will prove only modestly successful. Why? Two reasons: quality of life and availability of skilled workers. Business owners endure California's taxes, regulations and political squabbles because they believe it's where they want and need to be located in order to succeed.

For Nevada, the political equation comes down to adopting California's strengths and avoiding its mistakes.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.