Skip to main content

California discovers gold again

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
updated 10:22 AM EDT, Mon April 22, 2013
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for a new model that brings government into the world of 21st century technology.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for a new model that brings government into the world of 21st century technology.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Calif. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom advocates a rethinking of government for 21st century
  • Alex Castellanos says Newsom's idea could make government more effective, closer to the people
  • He says Newsom is right to say the future is open source, open data, open participation
  • Castellanos: The model for government changes from a vending machine to the cloud

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of NewRepublican.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast.

(CNN) -- One hundred and sixty-five years ago, in Coloma, California, a carpenter named James W. Marshall built a sawmill to harness the power of the American River. Below the waterwheel, he saw flakes of metal where the spent water flowed. Marshall marked the moment saying, "I have found it." He had discovered gold in California and more: For the next century, our nation would mine its future in the Golden State.

By the 1950s, California had manufactured an optimistic nation's dreams, brought them to life in the steel and smoke of industry and then captured them on celluloid. Business bloomed in deserts, nourishing one of the world's great economies. A green Eden of farmland, the Central Valley where the sun shone 300 days a year, grew one third of America's produce. Innovation followed discovery: Silicon, it turned out, was even more valuable than gold.

California's public sector also boomed. The state built a web of roads, bridges and aqueducts that shamed their Roman inventors. It funded world-class universities to prepare beach boys and California girls for lives of endless promise.

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

To see where the rest of the country would be in 20 years, we could look at California. But the roads to success and failure are often almost the same.

As the state gorged on its success, California's transportation arteries grew clogged. The public sector's blood began to thicken.

Californians moved faster, their problems grew more complex and their demands on government accelerated. The state's aging public sector could not respond with matching dynamism and flexibility.

Newsom: What to look for in Prop 8 case

Even as the state poured more money into education, transportation and public safety, it delivered less value in them. Government grew larger and more expensive, with less and less to show for it. Finally, when the housing bubble collapsed, state revenue did too. California's river of gold dried up. The waterwheel would not turn.

Today, California owes hundreds of billions: $300 billion alone in pension obligations. Even after Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to pay down $28 billion of immediate debt, California's liabilities for retiree pensions and health care exceed what it spends for all state programs combined.

California's future looks anything but golden. Taxpayers who don't want to be left footing the bills are in exodus. The state's politics is as paralyzing as Washington's. To see our nation's bright future in 20 years, can we still look at California?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Maybe so. Sometimes, the first green shoots emerge in the forest where everything burned.

---

Gavin Newsom is difficult to classify. Tall, slim and rakishly elegant, he could be the American reincarnation of British actor David Niven. A contradictory combination of left and right, he is a liberal hero for legalizing gay marriage in his city and a liberal villain for reforming its overly generous welfare cash payment program.

The 45-year-old Newsom, a Democrat who is now California's lieutenant governor, is more than a government theorist, however. He owns 17 small businesses with about 1,000 employees. His confederation includes three wineries that make luscious, fruit-forward elixirs. In business, he is a swashbuckling entrepreneur whose motto is "anyone who is not failing isn't trying hard enough." What is most revolutionary about Newsom is that in government, he's an entrepreneur as well.

When Newsom became mayor of San Francisco, he found a city with little money to meet social needs and behind Estonia and South Korea in digital governance. His push to modernize San Francisco without expanding its dysfunctional public sector is the launching point of his new book, "Citizenville." It is a fertile garden of original thinking.

The lieutenant governor argues that government's biggest problem is not that it is misguided but that it is archaic. Newsom cites open-source software pioneer Tim O'Reilly's analogy for government. "We think of government as a vending machine: You put money in, services come out." When something goes wrong, Newsom points out, we shake the vending machine out of frustration. If we feed it more money, it is to little effect: Vending machines are not particularly innovative or adaptive.

Our government is still built on that model, Newsom reports, the outdated, industrial-age paradigm of the factory, though everything else in our personal lives and our private sector has moved past it. Simultaneously, an explosion of technology, social media and e-commerce has created a more informed and empowered citizenry.

A "citizenville," Newsom writes, now has the power and connectivity to solve problems in new ways, e.g., determining where tax dollars are spent, how crime is fought and where garbage trucks go. Speaking through their laptops and iPhones, people are increasingly able to organize themselves and solve social problems, independent of the old, creaky, public-sector industrial plant.

"Technology changes the very nature of government -- from a top-down entity to a bottom-up one. From one-way hierarchy to two-way democracy. From vending machine to the cloud," he explains.

If we open the doors of government to the private sector and make data accessible, we can jump-start a new era of social innovation. Open up the doors of government satellite data and you get Google Earth. Give Web designers in Chicago and Oakland access to public police data, and they create innovative crime-mapping tools that prevent muggings. Invent a digital "currency" to reward citizens for participating in their own governance, and small town decision-making becomes as interesting and involving as Farmville. "The future is sharing -- open data, open participation, open source, open everything," Newsom writes. "And it must happen at every level."

Our old, marbled shrines to bureaucracy have grown unserviceable and unaffordable. Can we continue to justify them when mayors are using Twitter to address constituent needs instead?

The lesson: The public sector no longer has a monopoly on government. We are in a new world of revolutionary and empowering technologies. Americans aren't waiting for Washington or Sacramento to reinvent government for the next century; they are creating an app for that. With it, they are creating a new path for democratic vitality. Now, people-to-people government is an alternative to one that flowed only to people from the state.

With new tools and technologies, Newsom contends, it is time to redefine "government" to seize the opportunities of a new day. Would we still rather be governed the old way, top down, politically and artificially by plant managers? Or bottom-up, authentically, naturally and organically, through our own decision making and handiwork?

Perhaps this has been the promise of the American experiment in self-government all along, and we have only been waiting for the powerful and democratizing technology of the communications age to seize it.

Once more, when we need it most, maybe California has discovered gold again.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT