Opinion | California: Liberal Model or Cautionary Tale?

To the Editor:

Re “A Letter to My Liberal Friends” (column, Feb. 2):

Bret Stephens’s column is laudable in tone and presents an impressive list of high taxes and other government policies in California — his model for bad government by Democrats — that account, in his judgment, for the exodus of citizens for states like Texas with lower taxes and pro-business policies.

The glaring omission from Mr. Stephens’s analysis is any reference to the trend of worse and worse fire seasons. Paradise, Calif., was leveled by an unprecedented explosive forest fire.

Many thoughtful people attribute these fires to climate change, a phenomenon described as a “hoax” by the most recent Republican president, a view endorsed by many in his party for years. Isn’t it just possible that California is at risk not because of its high taxes, but because of chronic neglect and abuse of the environment, and that the answer is not less government involvement, financial and regulatory, but more — a path offered by President Biden and much of the Green New Deal?

William DePaulo
Lewisburg, W.Va.

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens lists high income and sales taxes as problems in California. But he misses the mark in blaming liberals for this. The cause of these high taxes is the arbitrary limitations on property taxes. Conservative anti-tax forces passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property tax to 1 percent of the property value, and limited increases in property value to 2 percent a year as long as there was no sale of the property. This cratered California property tax revenue, so, big surprise, other taxes went up.

I bought my house in 1984. It is easily worth north of $2 million today, but my property taxes are only about $4,500 a year. If I bought my house today, the property taxes would be five times what I pay. You cannot fairly discuss California tax issues without considering that big property tax elephant standing in the middle of the room.

Laurence F. Padway
Alameda, Calif.

To the Editor:

After reading Bret Stephens’s column I wanted to stand on my chair and shout yes, yes, yes! I am one of those people who used to love and live in California but left because it became unbearable, unlivable, unsustainable and just plain depressing. So much beauty and potential all squandered by absurd policies.

I am very grateful for honest evaluations like that of Mr. Stephens, but I fear he is just a voice in the wilderness on this one. Just take a walk down the streets of San Francisco if you want to feel it and smell it firsthand.

Bruce Stefanik
Portland, Ore.

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens falls into the trap that governs our politics today, ascribing all problems to a neat ideological division. Yes, California has myriad issues that it is not handling well, and yes, it is governed by Democrats and progressive ideas. One can paint an equally dramatic and ugly picture of Texas or Florida and make the same cheap points about Republicans and conservative ideas. After you have done that you are no closer to good governance than when you started.

How about simply solving problems and park your ideology at the door? That is the theory behind our system of government and why the founding fathers were so fearful of political parties.

John Schieneman
Cold Spring, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Bret Stephens paints a bleak picture of California that has little resemblance to reality, especially in how he describes the influence of taxes on the state’s migration patterns.

My organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, has spent decades studying the impact of state and local taxes by income level. In fact, many low- and middle-income families pay lower taxes under California’s moderately progressive tax system than they would under the highly regressive systems used to fund public services in Texas and the other more conservative states cited by Mr. Stephens.

Of course, the very richest people in California pay more tax than they would if they lived in Texas or Washington. But these top earners can afford to live wherever they want. The best available research concludes that top earners rarely move because of taxes and, indeed, tend to move less often than everyone else.

Carl Davis
Asheville, N.C.

To the Editor:

I have lived in California for 42 years, and if I decide to move elsewhere, it won’t be for any of the reasons that cause Bret Stephens to be worried for California. What will likely drive me from my beloved Golden State are the wildfires that have swept California for the past three years. Those fires are a direct result of the climate crisis, which very few conservatives take seriously. Taxes and crime rates rise and fall; the warming climate and resulting devastation are here to stay.

Betsy Crabtree
Sonoma, Calif.

To the Editor:

A ruling by the Ninth Circuit, which encompasses cities on the West Coast, on homeless encampments has spawned much of the increase in crime and degradation of our cities.

In 2018, the Supreme Court allowed to stand a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision stating it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce rules that stop homeless people from camping in public places when they have no place else to go. That means states across the Ninth Circuit can no longer enforce similar statutes if they don’t have enough shelter beds for homeless people sleeping outside.

Cities’ hands are now tied by the decision because it effectively creates a constitutional right to camp. I am sure that cities that are able to enforce strict anti-camping laws in public places have fewer indigents and less crime.

Karen Coe
Seattle

To the Editor:

People leave California because real estate is expensive. Yes, it is that simple. The rich can afford to enjoy the splendor of California’s bounty more than most, but ordinary people are protected by labor, consumer and environmental laws that other states do not have. This is no small affair in our daily lives.

In California you are protected from the worst abuses of employers, insurance companies, polluters and fraudsters. There are rules for small businesses that do make it difficult, but they also keep things fair and equitable for the majority of people. I, for one, would not wish to live under the jurisdiction of Texas’s environmental laws or Florida’s labor or consumer protection laws.

People don’t leave the state because of taxes; they leave for more value in housing and a different lifestyle.

Hubert Schaefer
Albany, Calif.

To the Editor:

Devoted New Englander that I am, I’ve never quite understood the outsized appeal of California. So much of it is straw-colored. I would be longing for green if I lived there. One road sign after another warns of danger — Fire Risk HIGH, Wild Boar Crossing, Mudslides. Buildings are required to be fortified against earthquakes. Recently a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway, over which I’d driven not two years ago, collapsed without warning into a giant crevice.

Give me Connecticut any day. Four seasons, all lovely, and the scariest road sign is No Right Turn on Red.

Margaret McGirr
Greenwich, Conn.

To the Editor:

One benefit of all those Californians moving to Texas, my native state, is that they are taking their liberal politics with them, bringing Texas one step closer to turning blue.

Richard Whittington
Santa Fe, N.M.

To the Editor:

Re “California Is Making Liberals Squirm,” by Ezra Klein (column, Feb. 12):

As an émigré to San Francisco from the Midwest, I love this city for all its quirky behavior, sophisticated ideas and especially the people. It’s on that basis that I would like to thank you for your fresh view on the necessity for the pragmatic recognition of some of the main challenges that California fails to notice.

When we are able to see the difference between what we say and what we do, we can help our collective circumstances, both locally and nationally. Our people speak one way to their community of friends and neighbors and another way at the ballot box and with their money.

The contradiction between politically correct stances and systemically biased policies are part of the fuel that makes conservatives furious. If we are unwilling to pay for the improvements of infrastructure for disadvantaged communities, and we refuse to allow affordable housing and mass transit near us while we vainly express our political correctness, then we are living in a contradictory dream. If I hear one thing from across the conservative/liberal divide, it’s that.

Thank you for helping us to awaken from that disjunction and please, for our sake, go deeper.

Bruce Helmberger
San Francisco

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