I'm in California, hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and visiting my son at college. So to mark that, I'm re-visiting some columns that take place in the Golden State, such as this, from our epic trip out West in 2009. Stay warm Chicago, and I'll be back next week.
"This is California, land of protest and public comment!" it reminds us, suggesting we post our concerns online.
That might not be enough this time. Just as in Illinois -- facing its own crisis, though not on the biblical scale of California's -- where social service agencies flocked into the streets last month, decrying the severity of the cuts they're facing, so here the public is slowly grasping that California is not dealing with the usual, dangle-the-baby-out-the-window threats that always manage to vanish at the last minute, but something new: a vastly constricted economic reality hurtling at them like a canyon floor.
California is beginning "the biggest downscaling of government in history," according to the Los Angeles Times, and while the plan to indefinitely shut 220 California state parks -- roughly 80 percent of the system -- got scaled back, for the moment, state government spent itself into this mess, and with its ability to raise taxes hamstrung by voter propositions, the only solution is to slash its way out.
People praise the democracy we live in, but, as with so many popular beliefs, that's just plain wrong. The United States is not a democracy, thank God, it is a republic. Meaning that instead of enacting laws by the direct vote of citizens, the way they did in ancient Greece, we elect representatives who pass laws for us, based on public opinion and, ideally, their own common sense.
California is an exception because it has direct democratic involvement in the legislative process, via ballot propositions, like the famous Proposition 13, which capped real estate taxes, shifting the burden onto income and sales taxes. So when the economy sours and people lose their jobs and spend less, money stops flowing in to the state. Which is why, in hard times, when people need state services most, the money to pay for them isn't there.
While in Illinois, simple political cowardice prevents politicians from raising cash the government needs, here, their choices are constrained by law.
The daft proposition system affects life in other ways -- you can't walk into a public place in California without seeing a large sign warning you that there are cancer-causing chemicals lurking within. Go to a fish place, and the menu will, in essence, advise against the eating of fish.
Speaking of laws. Lest the whole column be about tax woes, I should update our trip here because the journey took an interesting detour, seemingly outside the realm of legal authority. We left Salt Lake City and headed toward Reno to meet my wife, who was flying to join us.
Near the Nevada border, I spontaneously exited the highway at Bonneville, having grown up reading about rocket cars setting speed records there.
You drive about three miles and find yourself in a fantastical white, empty place -- the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats. The horizon is a perfect straight line with only hazy blue mountains in the distance and a cloudless sky.
The road ends, smoothly blending into the flats. There are no warnings, no directions, not so much as an orange safety cone. You are free to do what moves you. Most people stop, gawk and leave. But I felt obligated to ease the van off the road.
"You wanna learn to drive?" I asked Ross, as we blasted through the void. He said yes, and we switched seats. If this seems grossly irresponsible -- he is 13 -- I'd point out that there was nothing for him to hit, and while I was slightly concerned he would careen into another joy-riding vehicle, there was only one other car, far off, like a ship in the distance.
The boy drove quite well, for a novice -- when he got up to 60, it occurred to me that he might cut the wheel abruptly and roll us, so I gingerly explained the fine points of turning.
He didn't drive long -- this place is indeed very flat, but it's still a natural formation, and I couldn't be certain there wouldn't be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. After I imagined the grim prospect of a phone call home, explaining the trip was scrubbed while we wait for a Honda axle to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah, I made Ross slow down, and instructed him on some less exciting fine points, such as the fact that the "R" on the transmission stands for "Reverse" and not "Rest," as he so charmingly assumed.
The downside is that driving became an unapproachable trip zenith for him. The Redwood Forest could have been heaven on earth -- a fair enough description -- and it couldn't come close to joyriding the salt flats. Laws are a marvelous invention and can, when not screwed up by amateurs, result in good. But they can also lead to an over-regulated society where you can't eat a french fry without being scolded by the government. It is refreshing to know there is still at least one place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness and seize a bit of adventure.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 26, 2009