Saturday, October 31, 2020 -
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What happened to California?

I love Los Angeles, the palms, the weather, the beach, the friends, the kosher restaurants. I spent a year in college in Berkeley, living high in the Berkeley Hills, overlooking the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. It was breathtaking. In the back of my house deer appeared in the morning. La Jolla — a gem. Pacific Coastal Highway — a paradise.

What happened to California?

Against the state’s charm and beauty stand public policies and warped values that seem to be destroying the state.

Where to begin? With manmade fires? Rolling blackouts? The price of gas? The privileging of fish over people? The laws that would be silly if they were not serious, such as those that effectively ban freelancers?

Start with PG&E Corp. By now everybody knows that it has been grossly negligent in maintaining its power lines, whose failure caused a fire that consumed an entire city (Paradise, Calif.) last year, and that may have caused the Kincaid fire this year. Perhaps less well known is the sheer scope of PG&E’s malfeasance.

Item: PG&E acknowledges it has 1,200 (!) “immediate safety risks,” reports the Wall Street Journal. That’s 1,200 more potential Paradises.

Item: PG&E acknowledges 10,000 less urgent, essential repairs.

Item: PG&E pumphouses were built as long ago as 1921.

Item: PG&E operates nearly 40 hydroelectric facilities built before 1950 (WSJ).

The list runs on.

Instead of updating extremely aging equipment and fixing thousands of massive fire hazards, PG&E has a long history of payments for dividends, pensions, lobbyists, PR work (up to $750 per hour) and save-the-environment initiatives. PG&E’s only short-term way to try to prevent more fires from its unsafe equipment is rolling blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

California likes to think of itself as the vanguard that will save the planet, but if PG&E is representative of California, sometimes I wonder whether California is becoming like a third-world country.

Gas costs roughly $1.50 per gallon more in California than in the rest of the country.

This is as good a place as any to highlight the fallacy of California’s public policies. The fallacy boils down to this: We can save the planet, at the expense of the planet. We can legally require one ecological improvement without taking into account the anti-ecological consequences of that improvement. Feel-good ecological panaceas trump long-term wisdom. Why is California gas so high? One reason: California’s requirement that all gas sold in California be a special compound that pollutes less.

Sounds good. But often this special gasoline needs to be imported from refineries outside California. This not only increases cost but requires tankers to burn additional fuel of their own to deliver California’s special gas. As Pirkei Avot puts it, “the gain is cancelled by the loss.”

Another reason gas is so high in California: the state’s cap-and-trade program, which sets low-carbon fuel standards. Sounds good. But how does it play out? Lower standards mean higher costs for refineries, which mean higher gas costs. Then, California’s high minimum wage laws make it more expensive to operate the state’s gas stations. Another boost to gas costs.

The supposed, desired consequence of lower carbon fuel standards and higher gas prices is the reduced use of the automobile —the reduced use of fossil fuels. But instead, people cannot bear the extremely high gas prices. People rebel. They’re not driving less. They’re just screaming more. If people are to drive less, higher gas prices without viable transportation alternatives simply ends up degrading both the environment and the pocketbook.

With similar disregard for consequences, when PG&E by law diverts resources to meet the increased regulatory burden placed on it in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, PG&E ends up causing massive fires due to neglected equipment. Massive fires do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions! California pursues lofty goals, but ideology blinds politicians to consideration of consequences.

When something does go drastically wrong, the response in Sacramento is to identify all of the guilty parties but one: the state’s policies themselves.

I used the word “fallacy” to describe California’s public policy trajectory, but it is worse. It is wrong values. Another reason for the massive fires is many environmental groups’ opposition to controlled burns.

Don’t burn one tree! However, not to burn any tree, ever, in a controlled fashion is to harm the environment. What’s behind the reflexive opposition to controlled burns? Wrong values.

A wrong value is: The human being is here to serve the environment, down to the last tree.

The right value is: The environment is here to serve the human being. For the environment to serve the human being, the environment needs to be carefully tended to.

But that is not enough for environmental extremists in California. They apotheosize the environment. That is how you end up with extreme policies such as opposition to controlled burns; diversion of PG&E funds from critical equipment updates to environmental initiatives; and taking cap-and-trade beyond California to Quebec, Canada.

The latter encapsulates the problem: California thinks it is its own country. But, as the Journal points out, just like the state of Texas can’t cut its own oil export deal with Mexico and the state of North Dakota can’t cut a pipeline deal with Alberta, the state of California can’t cut a cap-and-trade deal with Quebec.

National problems can only be solved nationally, and local problems can only be solved holistically. Within this framework, if the definition of a national solution requires an international reach, that’s what we call foreign policy, and that is the province of the federal government, not of individual states. California is no exception.

It is a truism that leadership fails if it gets too far ahead of the hoped for followers. In California’s case, its leadership on environmental issues will hardly gather “followers,” i.e., other states in the union, if it cannot show that its policies work in California itself.

I, for one, still want to look forward to visiting California and seeing all those gorgeous sites.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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