The Golden State seems to embody the nation’s best and worst aspirations and ambitions

For the past several summers we’ve enjoyed getting out of New York to spend several weeks in the Golden State. This year the talk is all about the drought, the promise of an El Nino that will put a dent in the drought, the traffic on major highways and in small towns, the continued surge in real estate prices.

There are surges in minimum wage proposals, too, with some places going to $15 an hour and a legislative push for a statewide $13 an hour figure. There are other markers of progressive thinking: the Los Angeles City Council banned the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines. California law already bans their manufacture or import.

California was the first state in the nation to pass an “affirmative consent” law requiring explicit agreement to engage in various stages of sexual intimacy. California Governor Jerry Brown told the recent Vatican climate summit that a third of the world’s remaining oil reserves need to stay in the ground, for the sake of the planet.

It’s worth noting that this is also the state that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rep. John Schmitz, several members of the Tea Party Caucus and memorably, Rep. Sonny Bono. If California is anything, it is a welter of contradictions and contrasts.

The same Jerry Brown who thunders about saving the planet is the Governor who will not put a stop to fracking in the state’s oil patch – California produces more oil than all but two other states. Fracking (which uses enormous quantities of water) continues even during the drought.

A statewide boost to $13 minimum wage would not do much for the gap between low-wage workers and California’s housing prices, 2.5 times higher than the national average. California’s population is huge, which only partly explains the state’s dubious distinction of leading the nation in gun murders.

Water is on everybody’s mind here. Senator Diane Feinstein has introduced a bill that would spend $1.3 billion over several years to put water back into underground aquifers and build desalination plants. Desalination takes a lot of energy whether it’s to pump salt water through membranes or flash-boil it in stages. So to solve one problem, California might actually intensify another, the demand for electricity.

And as with previous attempts to deal with the water crisis here, there are tensions between the cities and the agricultural middle of the state. It takes a lot of water to maintain California’s position as the nation’s biggest agricultural economy, in fact one of the largest in the world.

Californian drivers pay the highest gas and diesel taxes in the country. More cars on the road equals more gas bought at the pump equals revenue for the state. But they can’t widen the roads fast enough to handle the onrushing hordes of motorists and people complain about the congestion on freeways, bridge ramps, even country roads.

It’s a cliche’ that “you have to have a car to live out here,” but there are about 30 million registered vehicles and the population is only about 38 million. The car culture has its own ironies: on a quiet stretch of a street in Marin County, with maybe 15 homes, I counted 54 vehicles, most with some kind of environmental bumper sticker.

California is where at least one version of the American Dream is played out. Go to college, get a computer science degree, get a six-figure job, hang out with friends, eat vegan, invent a new data analytics platform, attract hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Become a billionaire. Maybe skip college and go directly into coding and write your own ticket with a hot new app. Maybe go for a tired history degree then go to a coding academy and grab your brass ring.

If the economy and the society are moving inexorably to all-digital all the time, then this is the epicenter. If you’re looking for a manufacturing job, this is not the place – California’s manufacturing sectors have grown at about one percent over the past few years, while some states have seen growth rates of close to 15 percent.

In so many ways, California seems to embody the nation’s aspirations and ambitions. Expansion, development, growth are the themes out here. Supermarkets sprawl for a block with shelves full of every kind of food and drink. Crews rip into the shoulder to lay down another lane or two. The future is right under your nose, and great gobs of money are right there to finance it.

In so many other ways, California suggests the downside of those ambitions. The gap between rich and poor is nowhere more apparent. You can almost hear the air being pumped into the next tech bubble, pushing prices and projections higher and higher and you wonder how many here learned anything from the tech crash of 2000.

I remember a lyric from a song by a band called Bristlecone, part of which went “mercy on ya, Caifornia, didn’t anybody warn ya?” Sure they did, and I wonder of some of California’s excesses are a cautionary tale for the rest of the country.

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