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Can California Change?—An Interview with Michael Shellenberger

· 10 min read
Can California Change?—An Interview with Michael Shellenberger

In October 2021, environmentalist activist and author Michael Shellenberger published his bestselling book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. He is now campaigning to be the next governor of California on an independent ticket and a platform that promises to address the crises he identified in that book—a homeless crisis afflicting the major cities, a rising cost of living, spiking crime rates, and a failing education system. He says he is proposing aggressive action and common-sense solutions that are not beholden to party politics. Threading that needle is notoriously difficult, but Shellenberger’s unusual candidacy may resonate with a liberal voting base perennially disappointed by the conventional candidates on offer.

In a Skype interview for Quillette, I asked Shellenberger about his plan for fixing California’s homeless crisis and his strategy for appealing to voters across the political spectrum. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quillette Magazine: You are running for governor not because you’re a politician who’s a natural fit, but because California has a lot of problems and you believe you have the right solutions. Tell me about the problems California is experiencing.

Michael Shellenberger: I’m running for governor because I’m heartbroken by the tragedy—the human tragedy—on the streets. I’m also angry at the politicians who keep making the problem worse. But I’m also inspired by California. I’m in love with California—I’ve been in love with it ever since I was a boy—and I think it has huge potential.

So, I’m running because I want to overcome the problems. But more than that, I want to help California to achieve its potential as a state, which is to lead the country in creating a new social contract—a new understanding around questions like: What is our obligation to our fellow citizens when it comes to mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness? What is the arrangement with each other in terms of creating abundant energy, water, and housing? And what is the new social contract around education? Because we should have world-class schools, but they’re absolutely failing our students.

QM: Recently, urban planner Nolan Gray tweeted, “Florida is what California was supposed to be: a place where normal people can just kind of show up and claim their little slice of paradise and be weird.” That’s how I thought of California before I moved here. Do you think that’s the correct way to think about it?

MS: I think that maybe it’s sort of how it was supposed to be, but I don’t think that’s a particularly compelling vision of what California should be. California is in many ways the most American of all American states. It’s a state that’s obsessed with the frontier, it’s obsessed with freedom. The crisis facing California is part of a broader crisis facing America, and that is a crisis of freedom unbalanced by responsibility. So, one of the things I’m proposing to do as governor is to build a statue of responsibility that’s as tall and magnificent as the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But rather than ask a foreign nation to build it, I believe Californians should pay for it and build it ourselves. That would represent a completion of the American project.

We’re suffering a Peter Pan syndrome in California—we refuse to grow up, and that looks like a refusal to accept responsibility. We see it at all levels of government. We see our current governor refuse to accept responsibly for the various crises—the homeless crisis, which is really an untreated mental illness crisis and a drug addiction crisis. He’s refusing to accept responsibly for the educational crisis, where only half of our students are proficient at reading and only one-third are proficient at math—black students are 10 percent proficient at math and Latino students 15 percent proficient at math. In response, they’re now seeking to lower the standards for all students. That’s a way of eschewing rather than accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility means raising standards for all students and giving parents more involvement and choice to personalize the education of their children.

This also means taking responsibility for the management of our environments—of our forests and cities. We’re not going to allow large areas of our cities to turn into open drug scenes. That deprives other people of their freedom and does nothing to care for sick people in need of medical care, who are instead enabled to live in their own filth and to maintain their addictions. Similarly, on energy, Californians need to take responsibility for producing our own energy rather than being dependent on energy imports.

So, I’m proposing a new era of responsibility. With that, California has a chance to lead the whole country, which is also struggling to figure out what kind of country we are going to be. We see both Left and Right slipping into nostalgia for a past that never existed. So, while I agree that California has not become what Florida is, I don’t think “live and let live” is good enough anymore.

QM: Last week, I was coming home from work at San Francisco’s Civic Center. I was at a BART station going down an escalator, and right in front of me was a guy smoking something off a piece of tinfoil. I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t appreciate the fact that I had to breathe it in. This situation wasn’t shocking at all; it’s something you see all the time. In Michael Shellenberger’s California, what happens to this guy? Is he arrested? Does he go to jail? Does he go to rehab? Is it forced rehab?

MS: He was probably smoking fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. It’s put on top of the tinfoil and then they light the foil underneath and then they inhale the smoke through a straw. We’re going to get people like that the medical care and shelter they need, which is our moral duty. If there were an earthquake and 200,000 people were suddenly living in tents on the streets suffering from drug addiction and mental illness, we would not hesitate to take care of them.

So, our response will be to create sufficient temporary shelter for everybody and triage tents to provide medical care, including detox from drugs. We will then work with law enforcement and social services to create a centralized addiction and mental-health care system that we’re going to call Cal-Psych. Initially, this will be created through executive order and executive action, but we will also go to the legislature and ask that they pass legislation to create Cal-Psych as a legislative body. We’ll take action because it’s our moral and legal obligation to do so. And we’ll draw on the extraordinary powers that we have as governor to do that. We’ll use those powers judiciously, but we’ll use them to address the humanitarian disaster. If we get into early 2024 and the legislature has failed to act on our proposals, then we’ll put them on a ballot initiative and voters will vote on them in November 2024.

Once those two years have gone by, voters will have seen a significant improvement and a significant reduction of open-air drug use and dealing. To the extent that we can, we’re going to deport the drug dealers working here illegally for the Sinaloa Cartel. And we’ll work with federal law enforcement and immigration services to make sure that those drug dealers who are killing our citizens are deported or prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

We may also need to modify some of the laws that have decriminalized drugs and shoplifting. We’re going to need to pass legislation. But the vision here is that after eight years—really after four years—we don’t have open-air drug scenes. Instead, we will have shelter for all—universal shelter—and a significantly larger police force. We will have our centralized psychiatric and addiction care system—a CEO who reports to me, six regional directors who will report to the CEO, and case managers and social workers who will report to the regional directors. They will also oversee a network of private contractors who will provide shelter, residential care, rehab facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and hospital beds, all with a single payment reimbursement system so we get reimbursed by Medicaid, particularly if we’re going to be taking care of sick people from around the United States.

QM: How are you planning to sell the idea that some measure of force is required to get people off the street? Every time the government tries to close a homeless camp (for example, in Echo Park last year), there’s a huge public outcry. Right now, Gavin Newsom is trying to roll out his CARE Courts plan, and you have the ACLU saying it’s going to exacerbate racial disparities. How are you going to deal with the level of pushback you get from the public and organizations like the ACLU?

MS: After the Echo Park open drug scene was closed, we saw a small number of very loud activists complain, but they are a political minority. They hold radically different values than the majority of people in California who think that parks belong to all of us, and that they shouldn’t be privatized by a small number of radical anarchist organizations using drug addicts and the mentally ill as cannon fodder for their war on civilization. The vast majority of the public wants to shut down the open-air drug scenes. They’re tired of what’s going on.

The governor is basically engaging in a public relations exercise to show that he is trying to take action on this issue. But it transparently can’t work, because without the care system in place, you can arrest mentally ill people but where are you going to put them? We don’t have the psychiatric beds in our hospitals and we don’t have the residential care facilities, like the one that took care of my aunt with schizophrenia. They don’t exist because Gavin has refused to create that system, despite the advice of his top mental-health advisor.

So, the care system has to come first. This is where mainstream liberals and progressives, at least rhetorically, have been accurate. So, once we create that care system, we have to enforce laws so that the people who are crying out for help through their behaviors—like breaking laws against public camping, public defecation, public drug use—can get the help they need. But if you don’t create the care system first, then you’re just going to be putting mentally ill people in jail. So, I think progressives are actually right to be concerned about Governor Newsom’s agenda.

QM: A poll of the top issues for voters in California was recently taken by the Berkeley Institute of Government Studies. For Democrats, these are housing affordability, homelessness, climate change. For Republications: crime, gas prices, immigration, taxes. For no-party [unaffiliated] voters, it was a mix of both: housing affordability, homelessness, crime, gas prices. So, it looks like Democrats and Republicans, even in California, are on wildly different pages in terms of what they care about. Republicans don’t seem to rank homelessness as a top priority. So who are you actually speaking to? It seems your message is more for Democrats. How are you going to bring Republicans in?

MS: Our early polling shows that we draw equal support from independents, Republicans, and Democrats because our agenda is not partisan. It’s just a common-sense, practical agenda.

The majority of Californians have the same concerns but they express them slightly differently. What the Republicans call crime, progressives call homelessness. But we’re all talking about the same thing, which is that the open drug scenes are driving the increase of property crimes around the state. And so, we’re going to deal with that the same way that all civilized countries have dealt with it. We’re going to enforce the law, provide universal shelter with housing earned, and provide universal psychiatric care.

There’s been this conventional wisdom in politics that somehow you’re supposed to change your message in the primary versus the general election. I don’t think that’s a particularly honest way of campaigning. I’d rather just tell people what I want to do from the beginning. And the fortunate thing is that California’s no-party-preference electoral system has created an opportunity to just be able to explain what we need to do to both sides—all sides.

QM: I’ve heard a lot of politicians in the last few years say that they’re going down the middle and appealing to both parties. That was Andrew Yang’s thing: “It’s not Left or Right, it’s forward.” If you look at his policies, he’s basically a leftist but he reframes the messaging so it’s palatable to the Right. Is there a politician that you think has done this correctly? Is there someone who you’re modeling your campaign after?

MS: No [laughs]. If there were, I’d be working for them. And that’s why I’m running. I’m the only person who has this vision. And the vision comes out of having done the research and gone to places that have done this successfully. If you were to ask, “Has anybody had the vision?” the answer is “Yes, but they’re all in foreign countries.” I’m a huge fan of the Netherlands. It’s a country that has tough love as a core value. The party that’s in power is the party that came to power shutting down the open drug scenes. It also is the same power that supports nuclear energy and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Whether you’re dealing with drug addicts or with energy, you have to be a grownup. The childlike view of these things is that there’s some quick and easy solution that has no consequences and anybody who denies it is a bad person. A more mature version says there are always going to be advantages and disadvantages to particular solutions. But there needs to be some kind of balance and some kind of moderation between strictness and love—between just helping people but also demanding change.

Similarly, we get higher performance by doing hard things. Hard things actually bring out our best. And so, difficult obstacles are also the way forward. You don’t solve problems by going around them or avoiding them but by confronting them head-on and seeing them as opportunities to make yourself better.

And that’s how I view California’s crisis: it’s not just a chance to get back to how things were. It’s a chance for the state—for us—to become better and really to become more mature. And to realize that there are ways to enforce laws without being cruel. You can demand accountability from people without punishing them. Certainly, some people are just sociopathic—violent criminals who should be in prison. But the vast majority of homeless people are just drug addicts or mentally ill people who need care with accountability.

You can follow Michael Shellenberger on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.

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