Driving south down Highway 101 in my red Ford Mustang convertible in late August 2014, I reached my tipping point and decided to leave California.
A year ago my wife and I hadn’t considered leaving the Golden State. Even as recent as June and July 2014 our ties to California were solid. But in August, opportunity collided with a tipping point in our thoughts. Before I go back to that drive south some background is in order.
California is a great state that asked a lot but paid off with interest. My recently published novel Gold & Glory highlights both the cost and the incredible ‘Pearl of Great Price’ the Golden State provided so many in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Silicon Valley at that time really was like being in Florence during the Renaissance. All the other things: the congested highways, high taxes, and crime spikes were in the background to the grand achievements. Many of us believed we were enabling the Information Age and all the sweat, worries, and efforts were worth it. The successes of our efforts yielded significant triumphs and wealth.
And there was inestimable fun to be had: skiing in the Sierras with a view of Lake Tahoe, running marathons from Big Sur to Carmel, Katy Perry’s California Girls, the go-go rush of success, and winning against everything and any odds. Stock options were in vogue and many, like me, capitalized on the bet on yourself and your company mantra. I went from a brutal ninety mile commute to a large house with pool and built in spa, South Lake Tahoe vacation house, and exotic vacations to Rome, Hawaii, Germany and Poland. California and Silicon Valley were unique and made all that possible. I lived in California with my family for over twenty-two years and we were (and are) forever thankful for the amazing experience.
But things are going wrong. The infrastructure trailed the population growth but it was always moving forward with ‘highway of the future’ type construction going up faster than I ever believed possible. That ended in the first decade of the 2000s. Real political debate ended as well. The state has been ruled by the Democrat Party since 1998 and no amount of wrongdoing like the bribery of State Senator Lee and corruption of State Senator Rodrick Wright or State Senator Ron Calderon will change the vicelike grip of power enabled by the state’s government unions. There is an elitist ‘we know better and get to tell people what to do’ streak in Sacramental that is stoked by unaccountability. That was the big state thing that went wrong. A national thing hurt California as well. National envy from people like Warren Buffet destroyed the Silicon Valley’s egalitarian stock options plans. I doubt many understand the cost of the loss of stock options to regular employees. I doubt Silicon Valley understands the cost of the loss of stock options as it ages. And age it will since there is less promise for youth to bet on themselves and their company. But California still has Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple. The government is a one party show. Big deal. What’s the problem?
Crime is a problem. I was CEO of MDC Vacuum LLC from 2008 – 2010. MDC is in Hayward, a city just south of the Oakland docks on the East Bay. I drove to Hayward early to beat the Interstate 880 traffic and worked out at a 24 Hour Fitness facility before going to the plant. Every day while on the treadmill or stationary bike I saw local newsflashes that showed brass shell casings littering the Oakland pavement marked by yellow triangles as befitting a crime scene. Once, I exited 24 Hour Fitness to see flashing red and blue police lights, four people handcuffed and sitting on a curb. Four police, two with guns drawn, were making an arrest. A week later, the driver’s window of my Mustang was smashed in 2009 and my dash GPS stolen – in broad daylight while parked in the company parking lot. I wondered how bad crime really was as the East Bay scenes never made national news. So I looked it up. There, in black and white in Wikipedia, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts stated Oakland averaged three street shootings per day … three shootings per day. So at the same time the newly minted Speaker of the House, Northern Californian Nancy Pelosi, was visiting Syria’s Assad to show everyone how peaceful diplomacy should be done and decrying the US Military in Iraq; in her backyard were more daily shootings than in the Baghdad Green Zone.
Taxes are a problem. While running MDC Vacuum LLC I decided to mend fences with a valve company that used to be across the street from us in Hayward. The valve company had since relocated to Reno, Nevada. I drove my repaired Mustang to the valve company and was stunned to see a cluster of companies in a commercial park that all relocated from California. The crusty valve company founder talked how California state sales tax used to be waived for capital equipment purchases that created jobs. A Sacramento lawmaker protested depriving the state of that revenue.
The founder informed me he was able to relocate his company from Hayward to Reno for less than the cost of state sales tax for a single Mazak CNC – Computer Numerical Controlled – machine tool. Thirty-two of the thirty-six Hayward employees relocated to Nevada with the company. A few months after that visit Senator Barbara Boxer praised the California East Bay for decreasing its electricity use! I wanted to show her the shells of once prosperous companies that were no longer producing, employing, or consuming electricity.
Deficits are a problem. When Gray Davis was elected governor in 2000 he was granted an unprecedented windfall of stock option tax receipts. Even as the Tech Wreck of March – June 2000 (also called the dot-com bust) destroyed most future stock option receipts, Governor Davis increased the state spending by 40%. Most of that spending went into state government payrolls, not infrastructure and not police. In spite of the power crisis, the recall election in 2003, Governor Schwarzenegger, and now Governor Jerry Brown; no one ever looked back at that step function increase in spending, done at the time of dizzying surpluses, and attempted to reverse it. The decade of deficits, reduced police forces, and strained infrastructure are the result.
Finally, let’s talk water mismanagement. There were two decisions that put the state in its current drought situation. When I bought my first house in Los Banos in 1992, California had just ended the worst drought in the state’s history: the 1987 – 1992 drought that caused all to recoil from Horace Greely’s ‘go west young man’ clarion call. My wife and I joked that we ended the drought by moving to the state and regularly washing our car. The worst drought in California’s history was followed by a lot of wet years. In the mid-nineties, the state implemented the ‘no net loss of wetlands’ environmental regulation. The state wetlands that were lost due to development had to be replaced. The California solution to this, so soon after the 80s – 90s drought, was irrational.
The water managers mandated that millions of gallons of water be pumped annually from the largest artificial reservoir in the United States, the San Luis Reservoir, into what once were fallow semi-arid fields in the San Joaquin Valley. That was the first poor water decision. I was living in Los Banos when this kicked off and the duck hunters were quite happy at the vast artificial wetlands. The homeowners dealing with the clouds of mosquitoes from the stagnant ponds and resulting chemical fogs to counter them were less so. The farmers who went out of business as this policy continues are considerably less so.
The second poor water decision occurred less than a decade ago. It was all about the delta smelt, a three inch long, silver fish native to the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta that was endangered by the Banks Pumping Plant pumping fresh water from the Delta and sending it into the California Aqueduct to Central and Southern California for agriculture and residential use. In 2007, while the wet years continued, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California mandated severe reduction in water deliveries from the Delta for the purpose of protecting the smelt. When this dictate was issued I read how water experts were scratching their heads about what to do when the next dry years hit.
Fast forward to the three dry years of 2012 to 2014 and here we are. Multi-generational farms have shut down, watering restrictions are in place, fountains are dry, and everyone hopes the wet years return. In July 2014, after the failure of California residents to voluntarily reduce water use by the requested 40%, I read how Senator Dianne Feinstein recommended easing the environmental regulations. I couldn’t believe it. Multi-generational farms were out of business and California was still pumping millions of gallons into artificial wetlands? Homeowners were asked to go back to the seventies ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ toilet flushing curtailment and California was still not pumping fresh water from the Delta? Somebody, I thought, would connect the dots and ask where all that ‘freed up’ water was coming from. Then we could get to a rational solution from the considerable brainpower in the state. That didn’t happen.
Instead of laying the problem on the table with consumption data and offering solution scenarios, Sacramento showed both their unaccountable one-party grip of power as well as their utter disconnect from the populace they are purportedly sworn to serve. State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson famously echoed Ralph Emanuel when commenting about the situation, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Assemblyman Dickinson is partnering with State Senator Fran Pavley in sponsoring bills to address the drought. What is the aim of the bills? Is it to map out a plan to deal with California water consumption for the next thirty years? No. The bills enable the state to step in to regulate groundwater which is currently the purview of the landowners who drilled their own wells. That’s the first thing Sacramento targets after decades of no investment in water infrastructure? Let’s use this crisis to take more control?
The ‘Good Fight’ I write about is, as best I’m able to view it, citizens and their establishments walking the narrow Golden Mean between modern-day barbarism of chaos, gangs, and crime on one end and freedom crushing authoritarian central power on the other. California, for all its advantages, is failing the ‘Good Fight’ on both fronts. Although enclaves in Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, San Diego, and Marin County may avoid the consequences of poor government; the areas of Oakland, Stockton, Bakersfield, Fresno and the forgotten Central Valley are in dismal shape. California is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Since the state’s government unions ensure a permanent one-party rule, I don’t see California turning around in my lifetime.
Now let’s return to that drive south in August 2014. I’m in tortuous stop-go traffic with my manual five speed Mustang hitting the recirculation button on my ventilation to avoid the pungent exhaust smell and, north of Interstate 880, look up at an overpass. From left to right the steel overpass walls facing Highway 101 are covered with graffiti, some of which I recognize as gang related. Occasionally the overpass is painted over but, more often than not, it is covered with graffiti. I sigh and continue the stop-go commute south that takes me an hour and a half to travel twenty-eight miles. Stop-go . . . stop, go . . . stop, go. Waves of heat shimmer off the pavement. Stop-go . . . stop-go . . . stop-go. Dusty chalk brown hills frame the traffic. Stop, go . . . stop, go . . . stop, go. I look up and hit my tipping point. There is a large billboard next to Highway 101 that proclaims: Brown is the New Green. Water Less. Your Lawn Will Live. Santa Clara Valley Water District. I stared at that cream and brown billboard that had a picture of a house with a vast ugly brown lawn for a long time as traffic stood still. Then it cracked. “What the hell are we still doing here?” I asked the windshield. “We’re empty nesters and have no reason to continue contributing our best efforts to this madness.”
I never felt at home in California. Even after twenty-two years, it was always a foreign fantasyland. I always appreciate it, and will likely own California property for years to come, but it was never home. That feeling changed when we moved to Washington. It is lush with trees and greenery that reminds us of Pennsylvania but with soaring majestic mountains. After a rain, we note how the mists cling to the valleys of the Cascade Mountains and gasp at the Garden of Eden beauty. The tap water is pure, and when walking our dog in a steady rain, I couldn’t help smiling. It was time to leave California. Now, we’re home.