Wednesday, August 24, 2005

California Dreaming

An article written after a visit to California that was published in The Hindustan Times on August 12, 2005

Far fetched though it may seem, the American state of California’s politics, policies and ambitions offer a paradigm for certain Indian states who, too, possess talented populace, entrepreneurial skills, golden beaches, and feisty political traditions. California is an aspirational goal, not just in India, but the US itself. This is not a brochure for the state, and nor do we suggest that the state is some kind of a paradise on earth, but its near enough. With its pleasant environment, high incomes, knowledge economy and vigorously democratic culture, it is a model that deserves serious attention.

For someone from far off India, California is an exotic extension in the United States, accustomed as they are likely to be, to the East coast. But even a casual visitor soon finds out that this is a different America, and not just because it houses Hollywood. Its fabulous wealth, ethnic diversity, libertarian culture, are all different from the rest of the US. Though ruled by a Republican governor, California is a firmly blue state, as is New York, but there is a vast difference between the hard-headed, slightly neurotic suit-and-tie culture of New York, and casual California. New York’s investment bankers, stockbrokers, and high culture may give everyone else an inferiority complex, but not California with its Silicon Valley millionaires, Hollywood and its subcultures of surfers, body-builders, hip hop artistes, venture capitalists, film stars and geeks.

Californian cities are among the wealthiest on earth, with no less than six of them having a per capita income of over $100,000. Only an economy with such depth could have brushed aside the great dotcom bust and still flourish. A survey on religiosity and attitudes by the Capps center brought out clearly that West Coast attitudes towards religion and personal life were distinct. Where 19 per cent of those polled believed that the Bible was the literal word of god in this region, as compared to 32 per cent in the others. In fact 24 per cent reported they had no religious affiliation as compared to 13 per cent in other regions. Attitudes towards pre-marital sex and homosexuality, too, were distinctly more relaxed compared to the rest of the US.

The culture of the eastern seaboard states is influenced by the classicism and traditions of Europe, while California has been open to Asia whose migrants, particularly from China and Japan played a great role in its development. Unscarred by Nine-Eleven, the west does not have the obsessive national-security culture of the east. The main thrust of its think tanks, which are far less numerous than their eastern counterparts, have been high-tech, as well as China and Japan. India has come into focus in part because of the contribution of Indian techies and venture capitalists to Silicon Valley, as well as by the interest of the the US Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii, which is the nodal military command for liaison with India. As per the 2000 US Census the proportion of Americans of Asian Indian origin in the state is .93 per cent, numbering over 300,000, the most numerous among the Indian Americans in the United States. Strikingly, California of today is built upon a demographic palimpsest that contains the largest concentrations of minorities in the US. California, is one of three states with Hawaii and New Mexico, where everyone, including Caucasians, are a minority. This said, it should be pointed out that the older Chinese and Japanese migrants, the African Americans and even the miniscule Indian migrants faced decades of hostility and discrimination to achieve what they have today and whose blacks remain poor, disadvantaged and angry clustered in vast ghettoes in Los Angeles.

What makes the state very different from others is its constitutional system that incorporates the concept of public initiative, referendums and the right to recall elected public officials as well as the feisty participation of its citizens in the political affairs of the state, be they Hollywood stars, trial lawyers or conservative Christians. The last celebrated recall, was Governor Arnold Schwarzzengger’s predecessor Gray Davis. This is the system that has committed the state through Proposition 98 in 1988 to amend the State Constitution and provide at least 40 per cent of the state’s general budget for education up to 10+2+2. Since the 1960s, the state has an education master plan that is committed to provide higher education “to every California citizen who could benefit from that education.” In this three tier system, the University of California system occupies the top rung by selecting students from the top 12 per cent of high school graduates. It is renowned for its quality and for hiring the largest number of Nobel laureates anywhere in the world. The California State University system that targets the top 33 per cent high school graduates, gives bachelors and masters degree, but it emphasises ‘applied skills’. The third tier of community colleges provides two year courses open to all, and focus on vocational skills and remedial courses.

Federal Government establishments like the Lawrence Livermore lab and the Jet Propulsion Lab, incidentally managed by the universities, contribute to the knowledge pool along with private institutions like University of Southern California, Stanford University and Caltech who specialize in encouraging ‘blue sky’ thinking on a range of areas from robotics to biomedicine.

But besides this wealth of talent and skill, lies another crucial element—the venture capitalist and the start up culture that has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world, especially India. Without VCs, many of the startups would not have emerged and today, over 40 per cent of venture capital invested annually in the US is in California. The state has many rivals, not just in the US but abroad, but its unique combination of entrepreneurial culture, access to capital, and a pool of talent is not something that can be easily replicated. Despite imitators, even today, no one has been really been able to replicate a Silicon Valley. This is because, the knowledge economy is not just a matter that concerns universities and labs. In 2004, for example, a coalition of Hollywood stars, scientists, venture capitalists and ordinary citizens was successful in getting California voters to approve proposition 71 that bypassed President Bush and religious conservatives to permit the state to spend $ 3 billion for stem cell research.

Given the vast difference in time and place, it may seem preposterous to seek lessons in California’s culture for India. But there are some we can pay heed to. First, the commitment to a knowledge economy is based on real and substantive investment in education. Second, that education system is pitched in a real-time and realistic environment, instead of being merely a place where young people go to pass time. Third, encouraging entrepreneurship by freeing capital and labour from excessive regulation. Third, migrants add to productivity of an economy not detract. ‘Sons of the soil’ laws may provide a great deal of political capital, but are counter-productive in the long run.

1 comment:

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