A “Wartime” California As It Was Eighty Years Ago? Yes And No

Thursday, July 23, 2020
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California’s been through its fair share of challenges in recent times, but nothing quite like the present pandemic crisis, the containment of which entered a critical stage in mid- to late-July as state and local officials turned to new restrictions to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus across the Golden State.

Take last year’s wildfires, for example, which produced horrific images and, obviously, great misery for those caught in the path of the smoke and flames.

In 2019, California was home to 6,987 fire incidents, burning more than 253,321 acres with 732 structures damaged or destroyed, causing three fatalities. That swath of destruction accounts for only one-quarter of 1 percent of California’s land mass (over 104 million acres, trailing only Alaska and Texas among the fifty states).

The coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, so far has claimed the lives of 7,870 Californians (as of July 22), the first Golden State fatalities having been recorded in early and mid-February.

Other tragedies have befallen California, but many have tended to be regional in nature:  the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that devastated portions of Los Angeles; the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that struck the San Francisco Bay Area.

Both seismic events disrupted life in their respective communities, but they didn’t exactly bring the rest of the Golden State to a halt.

A more apt parallel to what the state is experiencing now might be the four-year stretch, nearly eight decades ago, in which California found itself on a wartime footing.

From 1941–45, the Golden State transformed from a largely agricultural economy to one based on industry and technology. In the ten years beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War, California’s population grew by more than 50 percent (from 7.23 million in 1941 to 11.13 million in 1951).

What the years provided California: a common experience, with individuals either signed up for the military or, in some capacity, contributing to the war effort.

And, with the notable exception of race riots in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943 that prompted a ban on the wearing of zoot suits on city streets, Californians were united in a single purpose: victory over the Axis powers.

By contrast, the California of today is divided along familiar ideological fault lines:  activists and bad actors (urban rioters) who’ve taken advantage of the pandemic to promote political agendas (check page 10 of this list of demands from a Los Angeles-based teachers union, which sounds like Bernie Sanders’ Christmas wish).

Will California see a similar transformation, courtesy of the coronavirus, as what occurred during the war years of the 1940s?

Yes and no.

No, in that no one foresees a population boom in America’s most populous state. If anything, California may be reaching its population peak, with a decline in the near future thanks to a declining birth rate .

As for industrial transformation, it would seem that three of California’s economic pillars—technology, trade, and tourism—will continue to play vital roles well into the future, although the latter two “t’s” have been hit hard by the pandemic.

But yes, in that California could be looking at an altered workforce should companies grant their workers more freedom to work virtually from greater distances (presumably, a gubernatorial task force on business and jobs recovery will be examining this and other new facets of the world’s fifth-largest economy).

And yes, in that the California of today has this in common with the Golden State of nearly eight decades past: shared experiences and a dominant topic of conversation.

Unless one lives the most lavish of California lifestyles—gated mansions and secluded vacation homes, private jets, concierge health care, personal shoppers, and a small cadre of friends who likewise live cloistered lives (and haven’t tested positive for the virus)—there’s a COVID-19 story to tell or a curious aspect of a baffling affliction to debate.

Moreover, it’s the one story that dominates conversations these days, whether one turns to cable news, social media, or Zoom calls (which pass for “water cooler talk” in the stay-at-home, shelter-in-place California of 2020). And that’s a rarity in a short-attention-span state.

Of course, that will eventually change, although no one knows exactly when. Many health experts are convinced that an effective vaccine won’t be ready until well into 2021. (Time will tell if a California concern comes up with a coronavirus vaccine, given the biotech research bandwidth in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

But come that time when California is ready to move on from the pandemic to more conventional policy debates, what will be awaiting Californians?

In this edition of Eureka, we’re not predicting the future. Instead, we are offering five topics that are food for thought in a post-pandemic (or would that be mid-pandemic?) California.

That includes the following:

  • Joel Fox, copublisher and editor-in-chief of the policy/politics website Fox and Hounds Daily, on whether a postcoronavirus California will witness a backlash against high taxation and grand social experimentation.
  • Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, on California’s search for safe, equitable, and sustainable transportation choices.
  • John Pimentel, a Silicon Valley sustainability entrepreneur/investor and a candidate for the San Mateo County Community College Board of Trustees, on the undervalued asset that is California’s community college network.
  • Shirley Svorny, professor emeritus of economics at California State University– Northridge and an expert on the regulation of health care professionals, on a “California Rule” that financially plagues all levels of government.
  • Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter fellow in journalism, on whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom will fare better than two of his predecessors—Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger—who likewise were saddled with stunning economic downturns.

We hope you enjoy this latest installment of Eureka—and that it gets you thinking about where California stands and whether America’s most populous state is moving in the right direction.

Happy reading!