California's Crisis of Faith
By Frank Holland
Published in the San Francisco Examiner
May 20, 2022
I still measure the time since I left California in months, the way people track human infancy. It made sense — for about a year. At this point, 18 months removed from my exit, I suppose it’s mostly an attempt to maintain proximity to a previous iteration of myself, now gauzy with nostalgia.
Like all nostalgia, it’s a romanticized, Hollywood version of reality. (In my case, a boring independent film that no one goes to see, but a contrivance nevertheless.)
It includes great visuals. Panoramic views from the pinnacle of Mount Tam, the entire region unfolding below. A 20-year tour of local taquerias. Dancing heat waves, cattle and live oaks in my native Tehama County. Parents’ weekend at Cal, when I glimpsed tears in my dad’s eyes as he stood awed by the neo-Babylonian Valley Life Sciences Building.
Sunsets that dissolve into the Pacific’s limitless horizon.
And yet, I still can’t forget what drove me — after the better part of 40 years — away from my native state. The reasons are almost too trite for recitation. Leaving has become an obligatory chapter in the California experience for many, and chin-stroking ruminations about the state’s problems could fill a U-Haul.
For me, it was a Hemingwayesque “gradually, then suddenly” situation.
Yes, it was the eye-watering cost of living for our family of five. The weeks of choking, toxic wildfire smoke. The de facto privatization of public space by sprawling homeless encampments. A school system that seemed to be in a state of active deterioration. And yes, it was the gradual drip, drip, drip of friends and family leaving our beloved Bay Area year after year, until our support network grew threadbare.
But it was more than that.
In a state predicated upon the attainability of the impossible, I began questioning the promise itself. After years of gradual disillusionment, I had reached the sudden part.
This, as much as anything, was what tipped us into the camp of so many others who had reverse engineered the pioneer’s journey west. It wasn’t a question of friction or expense. It was something more existentially dangerous when manifest at scale: shaken faith.
For California’s sake, that’s what worries me most.
When I arrived at UC Berkeley as the 20th century drew to a close, faith was in abundance and the Bay Area hummed with optimism and genius. Opportunities spilled forth like one of those Mount Tam vistas, spawning a new generation of creators, dreamers and builders. I remember a first-year engineering student in my freshman dorm who eventually dropped out to launch a successful startup. “Dude, you could take your dog public right now and make $10 million!” he told me, without ever having seen or met my dog. (In retrospect, perhaps I should have tried.)
We all know what happened next. The bubble burst, but the region didn’t stay down for long. Even a financial crisis that nearly toppled the world economy only slowed the inevitable march forward for the Bay Area, which strengthened its grip on the innovation economy through the 2010s and seemed poised to stay there indefinitely until the pandemic threw things sideways.
There are those who say that this episode in our history will be no different, that California’s preternatural ability to evolve and engineer its way out of thorny challenges will continue. I hope that’s the case. At the same time, the key ingredient in that recipe for self-correction and ingenuity has always been our shared belief that the arc of California is long, but it bends toward opportunity.
You’ll be hard pressed to find Californians who aren’t at least questioning whether that’s still the case.
Having spent a fair amount of time in Italy for work and research, I’ve seen how sclerotic institutions and entrenched in-groups can foster this dynamic, creating a sense of impenetrability around the most serious problems, not because the issues themselves are large, but because the political edifice and social trappings around them are so interwoven, rigid and complex. It is a milieu where solutions go to die.
Upon returning to the United States, I remember having conversations with friends who questioned why I would ever come back.
“Well, things work here,” I told them, thinking of the glacially slow Italian court system, byzantine bureaucracy, train strikes, garbage strikes and the difficulty of finding allergy medicine in my town at 1 p.m. on a Monday. “I think we take for granted how nice functionality is.”
Today, I have bizarrely similar conversations with friends and neighbors in my suburban Maryland community at the edge of Washington, D.C.
“California is amazing!” they say. “Why would you ever leave?”
And as I begin the conversation for the 100th time — recalling smoke-filled skies turned a sinister ochre, blocks-long tent cities of human misery, wells reduced to a trickle in the fertile Sacramento Valley, a housing market like a medieval torture device and a school district seemingly on the verge of self-immolation — I realize once again what an incredible feature functionality really is, and with it the ability to address problems in a nimble, intelligent way that unlocks opportunity for everyone.
For 170 years, the smart money has always been on California. I hope that trend continues. But for the state to contend with its myriad problems and stem the diaspora of the disillusioned, leaders at every level must appreciate the dangerous waters they have entered.
Housing, wildfire, drought and infrastructure deficiencies are tough problems that can be solved. Restoring the faith of a population that no longer believes in the capacity of its institutions to serve them is an exponentially more difficult trick.
Frank Holland is the principal of ORSO Creative + Strategic, focused on building a better California from his vantage point near the nation’s capital. Follow him on Twitter @heyfrankholland.