Think Long's Bad Rap on California

There’s been a lot of commentary on the Think Long “blueprint” for California, not much of it glowing. Peter Schrag and David Kersten have published extensive reviews. Joel Fox and Jeff Schauer have focussed, as I did, on its proposal for an unelected executive council.

There’s one thing, though, that no one has mentioned. The indictment embedded in the group’s name and made explicit in its “blueprint”—that California has failed to “think long”—is a bad rap.

I don’t know of any scientific measure of states’ policies and actions on a long-term/short-term scale. But by any fair standard California has a good record on long-think.

In K-12 education, it has set the school reform pace. In the 1990s, long before President Bush and Congress enacted No Child Left Behind, it had put in place a system of tough curricular standards, testing, and school accountability, and led the way on charter schools. On energy, California has thought long for so long, going back to Jerry Brown’s first incarnation as governor, that we now live in the very long term California was thinking about back then, with per-capita energy use now a third lower than the national average.

California pioneered clean air standards, pushing Congress (and the world) to follow. It enacted the first state-level global warming legislation, where Congress hasn’t followed. It tackled health care costs with HMOs and PPOs and Medi-Cal contracting long before any other state, and it's now out in front on ramping up the health reform act. It's done lots of planning in transportation, and, of course, there's the higher education master plan.

Whatever you think about the usefulness of any of those things, they don't fit the profile of a state unconcerned with the long haul and consumed by “short-term politics.” Unsurprisingly for a place that likes to boast of having its own dream, California has done its share of big planning and long thinking.

No, California's problem isn't aspiration, it's execution. A government hobbled by competing systems operating on contradictory principles and hamstrung by supermajority rules and the rigid centralization imposed by Prop 13 (two things Think Long doesn't even mention) can't even do the simple things, let alone deliver on dreams. If California had the constitution of, say, Iowa, would anybody be complaining about its failure to think long?