Update: November 9, 2016: This post was first published in 2014, after the release of Golden State, which imagines modern-day California on the brink of secession from the nation after a right-wing celebrity fascist who vows to build a border wall with Mexico is elected president.
There are a lot of red state voters who wouldn’t mind cutting California loose. People hate California because it’s big, it wields a massive share of electoral votes (55), and the loudest voices in the Golden State are pro-gay, pro-choice, and pro-Obama. Californians, meanwhile, get tired of being vilified. They point to the state’s enormous if sometimes embattled economy—one of the largest in the world, with a GSP (gross state product) in 2012 of two trillion dollars, or 12.9% of the U.S. GDP. They point to its productivity: California doesn’t just make a lot of computers and do a lot of stem cell research and come up with a lot of cool ideas; it also produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, not to mention massive quantities of milk.
Some might say that California is fairly self-sufficient. It has the brainpower, the person-power, and the innovation to accomplish a great deal. It doesn’t have the water, but that’s another story. As an article this week in Bloomberg puts it:
The drought is a stark reminder that California built the world’s 10th-largest economy, the nation’s top farming industry, and Silicon Valley, the epicenter of information technology, in a semi-arid environment that’s struggling to sustain the water needs of 38 million people.
But for a moment, let’s ignore the problem of water (which, of course, is an enormous problem), and turn to the issue of taxation.
You’ve probably heard the numbers before: for every dollar California sends to the federal government, it receives a return of 79 cents in federal funding. California pumps money into the federal coffers while states like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, and New Mexico take money out. Just for comparison, for every dollar my home state of Alabama sends to the federal government, it receives $2.01 federal funding (according to 2010 Census and IRS data.)
A lot of people in Alabama and elsewhere think Californians are a bunch of heathens. Many Californians on the left naturally balk at the vitriolic attacks on gay marriage and gun control by right-wing politicians who say they hate taxation, but more than willingly drain money from the federal coffers, all the while attempting to legislate morality at a federal level.
California has created a lot more billionaires since then, and when you consider that the very wealthy shoulder the highest tax burden (as they should), it wouldn’t be surprising if the scales have tipped even more dramatically.
When I brought up the disparity with my dad in Tennessee, he looked at me like I was crazy. When I showed him the data, he became downright ornery. There’s a certain discomfort in the idea that hippies in the land of Hollywood, gay rights, pot, and Silicon Valley are picking up a big chunk of the tab for their more righteous cousins. For Californians, it’s a bit like going to dinner with an acquaintance who never brings his wallet. While you’re paying for his dinner, he’s yelling at you about your lifestyle choices.
Of course, if it was all about taxing and spending, other states have more reason to secede than California. New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois are also donor states, although in terms of actual dollars spent, no one comes close to California.
But for some reason, you don’t hear much talk of Illinois splitting from the union. It would likely be a more complicated proposition for a landlocked state like Illinois than it would for California. When I was growing up, I was frequently told that California was going to fall into the ocean, and I believed it. I imagined a massive party boat carrying sinners to their doom, or possibly their salvation. I wanted to be on that boat.
If all this talk of secession sounds crazy, consider the fact that, in order to get an initiative on the ballot, the number of signatures on a petition “must be equal to at least 5% of the total votes cast for Governor at the last gubernatorial election. (Cal. Const., art. II, § 8(b); Elections Code § 9035.)” Not a whole lot, considering.
Recently, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Tim Draper has been trying to drum up support for splitting California into six states. (We even did an event together to discuss the possibility). It’s complicated and costly, and I doubt it could ever happen, for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here. However, considering the relatively few number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot, if someone with a rebel heart and a few billion dollars in the bank decided it was time for California to go its own way, a ballot initiative would not be out of the question.
For the record, I‘m not saying that California should secede. While I do believe it makes economic sense for California, I cringe at the thought of a nation divided not just in thought and philosophy, economics and morality, but also by newly imposed boundaries. I don’t want to have to cross the border to get back home to Alabama, even though the state where I grew up feels increasingly like another country. I don’t want a new currency, a new flag, a new national anthem. I don’t want to disrespect the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. In politics as in love, I’m of a mind to repeat the words of the great Al Green: “Let’s stay together.”
Maybe we have more to gain by trying to live in this fragile peace than we do by going our own way. Divorce isn’t good for the children, as they say. I’d like to think that the longer we stay in this together, the more we rub off on each other. Way back in 1970, the San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial in favor of gay marriage. Four decades later, gay marriage has gained wide acceptance in some of the most unexpected places. The children are making their own rules.
But the fact that California secession has long seemed like a wild idea put forth by a fringe faction doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, or that it won’t. It seems a little less wild, in fact, every day, as secessionist movements of all shapes and sizes gain traction across the country. Seemingly impossible things happen every day. I expect we’ll see a ballot initiative for Golden State secession sooner rather than later. I imagine vendors hawking secession ware in San Francisco’s Union Square, T-shirts and bumper stickers and underwear declaring California is my country. I’ll buy one of each, just to support the world’s tenth largest economy.
Buy the book, Golden State by Michelle Richmond.
“Mesmerizing and intricate, Richmond’s dissection of California on the violent brink of secession from the nation provides the backdrop for her deeper inspection of the fragile relationship between siblings… riveting.” Booklist, starred review
“Richmond delivers a page-turner.” San Jose Mercury