BY MATT HUTCHINS
Two weeks ago, as the Station Fire threatened to engulf the town of La Canada Flintridge in an inferno, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went on television to warn Californians and the rest of the nation of the dire circumstances affecting the state. “Fires are burning from the Northern border of California all the way south and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada. We have fires everywhere.” From the Governor’s words and the consistently shocking news of wildfires and fiscal turmoil in the Golden State, it would seem that there was a sort of economic and ecological Armageddon occurring on the west coast.
As a native of South Carolina moving to Los Angeles for the summer, I was intrigued by these quintessentially Californian problems that to natives of the state seem as natural as El Nino or the Santa Ana winds. I was not sure what to expect, but I knew that living in L.A. I would see a side of California that had not been shown on television or in movies, and that when I saw this unvarnished reality the confusing messages I had received would begin making sense.
When I arrived, I was not entirely impressed by the vast urban jungle of L.A., which is rather similar to the sprawling nightmare that Atlanta has become in recent years. Sure there are beaches and mountains, but the essential features of the urban landscape are surprisingly common: central cores with tall buildings, seemingly endless stretches of multi-story apartments and commercial structures, and impossibly wide freeways arching from one spaghetti junction to the next. Looking out from the sparkling glass towers of California Plaza, where the law firm where I worked was located, I could see through the haze to the mountainous horizon, with the entire expanse covered by a speckled patchwork of familiar urbanity through which busses and cars crawled on their daily commutes.
Over the course of a few months, though, I began seeing the signs I had expected to discover, indications of a harsh reality lurking beneath the mundane surface. In Griffith Park, hiking close to the observatory, I saw the telltale signs of the fires that burned the hills a few years ago. Twisted carbonaceous branches were interspersed among the sparse vegetation that was slowly returning to cover the areas that had been recently scorched. Grasses, shrubs, and undergrowth crowded around charred tree trunks. Here was a sign of the devastation I had heard of, but it wasn’t outside the city, where I had imagined to find a flame-torn battlefield marking a brutal siege. It was right in the midst of fish taco stands and the Hollywood Bowl. I found it bizarre that the very core of a city could be so combustible.
The longer I stayed in L.A. the more impressive the dryness became. In South Carolina we may have a period of weeks with little to no rain, but that is only because we are in the midst of a severe drought. Even in a relatively dry month we will see some occasional thunderstorms and tropical rains. But in Southern California, the lack of rain is so severe that no life can survive without the aid of irrigation. The demand for water is great enough that in the dry season it may be cheaper to let the plants die and replant later rather than providing water all year round. In the course of three months, I saw rain no more than three times.
Of course, during the first half of the summer the hottest topic in the news was the impending bankruptcy of the state government. Day after day, one politician after another would accuse some opposing faction of obstructionism, and all the time the Governor was heard threatening to dismantle social welfare programs to make up the shortfall. Over time his woeful rhetoric began to inspire the image of a fiercely armed Governator standing over a prone state government, Bowie knife in hand, ready to chop off a charitable hand to save the poisoned body. Eventually the stalemate collapsed, yielding to reason and necessity, but for a time it seemed that the legislature would herd the entire state off a cliff like lemmings into the Pacific.
And so as I listened to the Governor talk about the state’s wildfires it took me back to the manmade crisis which continues to loom over the state’s financial future. If we can say that tax dollars are the lifeblood of a state government, the water for its thirsty crop of public programs, then the train wreck that is the California government begins to make a little more sense given the constraints that have been placed on the budgetary process. For let’s not forget that this is the state that gave the nation Ronald Reagan, the tax-slashing Republican par excellence, and a state whose legislature has been tied up by one referendum after another. When we look at Proposition 13 and other tax-constraining measures as a desiccating force that limits the amount of tax money that can be put in the state budget, along with the severe economic challenges that are limiting the amount of revenue that precipitates out of the state’s income stream, we can see that California is facing a profound fiscal dryness. And in this bristling tinder box, the spark of the raging wildfires threatens to reignite the debate over how the state will pay for essential services.
It should come as no surprise when after a summer of high temperatures and no rain there are fires that cannot be stopped before they spread and consume huge tracts of land. Living in L.A. brought home to me the immediacy of these problems. A desperate situation should not be ignored and action delayed until there is a massive conflagration bearing down on one’s home.
We need to look at the broken state budgetary process in California and in other states as an indication that we are creating the conditions that will spawn a social and economic disaster. With the economy looking to remain weak for several years, there is more need now than ever for a strong education system that can guide students and displaced workers into careers in growth sectors. And this is a lesson for the whole nation, not just California, because just like California has its fire season, hurricane season is just beginning back East.
Matthew Hutchins is a 3L?and an Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record