Tried and true

Hosted by

When it comes to day-today governance, Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews is no fan of California's state government. But when it comes to disaster response Mathews says no one does it better than the Golden State. And that’s been evident during this pandemic, with state and local California leaders providing accurate, timely information, and setting an example for the rest of the country on social distancing. If only we behaved so rationally during normal times.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

America, I see you flailing—and failing—to respond to this pandemic. Why don’t you just let California handle it?

No joke. In normal times, you wouldn’t want Californians running anything. While we’re good at culture and technology, our leaders typically struggle to manage schools, housing, and traffic. In our personal lives, Californians famously flout the rules to go our own way.

But in emergencies, Californians transform into very different people—calm, competent, and cooperative. You’ve seen it during the novel coronavirus crisis, as we move faster and more aggressively than national leaders.

We’ve moved so fast, in fact, that other states have followed our lead. The strategies of social distancing and shelter-at-home began in the Bay Area, were adopted statewide, and have since been copied from Louisiana to West Virginia, and from Illinois to New York. And our state and local leaders have consistently provided the public with timely and accurate information, which cannot be said for the White House and federal agencies.

Despite our reputation as anti-business, our state has speedily lifted regulations on everything from commercial trucking to construction. It’s also worth noting that the $2.2 billion national bailout bill—was negotiated by two Californians, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi and Bel Air’s Steve Mnuchin. 

Why are Californians such masters of disaster? Because we’ve had more practice with calamities than other Americans.

Disasters are in our state’s DNA. The California we know today was built not by deliberate plans, but through responses to our never-ending emergencies.

Our progressive government is an accidental product of our biggest disaster. In 1906, an earthquake and fire destroyed what was then our biggest, richest and most populous city, San Francisco. In the aftermath, survivors did more than rebuild the city. They constructed a new modern government for California, with new agencies and commissions, university campuses, and a system for civil defense and emergencies. This early government modernization and marshalling of expertise turned California into an early capital of American technocracy.

Since then, California has honed its emergency response through earthquakes, fires, droughts, mudslides, and riots. And we’ve come to take bipartisan pride in our preparedness.

“California has excellent emergency response infrastructure and experience,” Rob Stutzman, a former top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, tweeted recently. “One might say, it’s an excellent deep state of expertise and ability.”

This emergency infrastructure can wither. Sometimes California’s dysfunctional budget process produces foolish cutbacks, including the shuttering of labs and mobile hospitals that would be useful now. But in emergencies, California ignores its rules and ramps up, with the help of a public and businesses (thanks for the masks, Facebook) highly attuned to disaster.

And our state, often prone to flights of fancy, stays disciplined. While the federal government bashes the Chinese, California secures medical supplies from China. While the Trump administration seeks to overturn Obamacare at the U.S. Supreme Court, California re-opens health insurance enrollment. While governors in Texas and Florida refuse to tap emergency funds, our state supports workers, seniors, renters, and the homeless.

Californians require that intensely pragmatic guidance. While other states questioned whether Gov. Newsom was moving too fast in COVID-19 response, criticism inside California is about whether the state is moving fast enough. That’s because the state has trailed local governments in enacting new measures; San Francisco, which knows its own history, declared a COVID-19 emergency back on February 25, before it had confirmed cases.

In times of emergency, some Californians—including your columnist—wonder why we can’t behave this responsibly more often. But right now, there’s no time to think about the yin of our emergency hyper-competence and the yang of our regular dysfunctional governance.

I, for one, must restock the “red bag” of emergency supplies I keep for earthquakes, but that I’ve unexpectedly tapped for COVID-19. I’m equipped for this disaster, but as a Californian, I know another one is just around the corner.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews