Carving Up The Golden State
To the left is a graphic representation of the most recent proposal to balkanize California to gather media attention upon submission for ballot consideration, this one floated by venture capitalist Tim Draper. I’m guilty of the same sort of political woolgathering in my own thought experiments, so I can’t particularly condemn the notion of wondering about whether several smaller states might not be better than the one big one we’ve got.
As an aside: Draper’s proposed names for the proposed new states are not very good, in my opinion. Calling the northernmost state “Jefferson” acknowledges a cultural undercurrent there, which I’m not sure is strong enough to justify a state name, and there are some folks in what is today Oregon who also think they’re in what should be the state of Jefferson and they might not like former Californians poaching their state’s name. All the same, it’s an okay name. But from there, the proposed names of “West California” (depicted in red) and “Silicon Valley” (depicted in silver) are neither accurately descriptive nor imaginative.
This sort of thing is not new in California. As early as 1859, proposals have been floated to split the state at the thirty-sixth parallel, with the 1859 proposal actually reported out of the state Legislature, only to be ignored by a Congress distracted by the impending Civil War.
So many of these kinds of ideas and proposals that get floated around are really almost overtly (and usually short-sightedly) partisan ways for people to express frustration with “us and them” thinking, giving vent to the impulse that if only those other people with all their bad ideas would somehow go away, what we’d have left over, with mostly other people who think like us, would be a great place to live. Only, not so much upon further consideration.
Draper points out that more states would mean more Senators representing the area in Washington. That’s an advantage, I suppose. I’m not sure how significant an advantage it is.
The more I learn about how water is distributed around California, the less I see that the state can be broken up at all for that reason alone. Yes, there are theoretical things that might happen to preserve something resembling the status quo distribution of water, but especially if there were somehow to be a fragmentation, the new states would almost certainly not be able to agree on an equitable distribution of water and money. We’ve simply grown too interdependent upon the existing intrastate infrastructure to break up now. And for better or worse, we’re creating new and ridiculously expensive infrastructure for the future.
Allocation of tax dollars, distribution of things like prisons and universities, and infrastructure like roads and the water distribution network, wind up trumping the idea that if only I can isolate “my California” from the rest of the slobs with grizzly bear and Half Dome holograms on their driver’s licenses, I can have the kind of state government that I would like best and to hell with the rest of all y’alls. And doing it from an armchair on a computer, especially with an eye towards culling out problems one would rather other people confront, seems doomed to create more problems than could possibly be solved.
Just as one example: including the three Eastern Sierra counties in with a state consisting mainly of the central valley areas does not, in my opinion, make sense on any level — and not just because through hook and crook, that area has become a major watershed irrigating and sustaining the city of Los Angeles. And it’s likely that were we to ask the folks in Inyo and Mono Counties, they would almost certainly indicate that they would prefer not to be in the same state as Los Angeles, whether or not they’d thought through the extent to which Los Angeles tax dollars support their area (and to which Los Angeles’ water needs provides local employment). It’s physically closer but logistically much more difficult to get from Bishop to Fresno than it is to get from Bishop to Los Angeles, because of the steepness and seasonal unreliability of roads traversing the Sierra Nevadas. For better or worse, those rural parts of the state are married to geographically distant and culturally urban Los Angeles. And as in many other sorts of divorces, the costs involved in the separation would leave both parties worse off than they were before.
The temptation to rely on simple geography — mountain ridges, parallels of latitude, or even watershed boundaries* — ignores the other, more powerful realities that the larger economy, logistical realities of existing infrastructure, and the need to maintain and update that infrastructure, imposes on us collectively. It’s tough enough to keep it all together as it is. Losing the pool of economic power that the state as a whole enjoys could easily make it well nigh impossible for the smaller successor states to each do it on their own.
Better to learn and practice the admittedly difficult art of living together.
* If we’re going to redistribute political authority along lines of watersheds, then we might wind up with states that look very strange indeed, even compared to, say, Mr. Draper’s recent proposal. It’s more than kind of silly at this point.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.