The term rarely arises in the state Capitol, being a little too abstract for its denizens, but the practice permeates California politics.
Humorist Garrison Keillor closes his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” with these words: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”
The Lake Wobegon Effect has come to mean any inflated — and unrealistic — viewpoint. And it could be applied to a document that has recently emerged from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research about how the state will — or at least should — evolve in the next several decades.
“As a guiding light for this document, we see a vibrant state with a robust economy that functions in harmony with the environment and provides a high quality of life for all Californians,” declares the draft of a report on environmental goals and policies.
It adds that the state’s future “will be built around” a number of key goals, including “a strong economy” that “provides opportunities for all Californians, attracts investment to the state, and is fueled by a skilled workforce and the state’s world-class education system.”
Furthermore, the document projects, California will have “thriving urban areas,” accompanied by “prosperous rural regions,” enhanced by “a clean environment” maintained by a “clean and efficient energy system” and “efficient and sound infrastructure.”
And how will California morph into this earthly paradise? The report all but ignores the current reality of California, and doesn’t lay out a practical and affordable pathway to achieving this wonderfulness over the 37 years remaining until 2050.
If anything, California is moving the other way.
The state has the nation’s worst traffic congestion and a very uncertain water supply. It discourages job creation with a regulatory morass, regressive tax structure and high utility costs. It tolerates a very troubled public-education system. Its governments face chronic fiscal problems. It’s also seeing socio-economic stratification, with the nation’s highest level of poverty and nearly a fifth of its workers unemployed or underemployed.
Most of all, it has an endemically dysfunctional political system preoccupied with relatively trivial matters raised by narrow interests and largely uninterested in longer-term issues.
Brown has taken stabs at a few of those issues, but has often settled for temporary solutions, such as a limited-term tax increase, or for half-a-loaf approaches, such as a largely symbolic reform of public pensions or a marginal change in school finances, that don’t discomfit his political base.
The high-concept, detail-bereft draft report fits into that mold nicely.
If Brown is serious about achieving the future it describes, he should spell out how he intends for it to happen, and take responsibility for it.
Otherwise, it should be dumped into Lake Wobegon.
Dan Walters cover state politics for the Sacramento Bee.