The Magic that was this Journey

Monday, February 21, 2011

5. 2/19/11 – Two Californias: It’s the Economy, Stupid

This research I’m undertaking is best described as grounded theory/ethnographic research. I’m on this journey, talking to people along the way about government.  The research is grounded theory (systematic generation of theory from participant centered data that contains both inductive and deductive thinking) because I’m building theory from the conversations. The conversations are led by three questions and I let the conversation go wherever folks want to go. The research is ethnographic (data collection is often done through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc....aims to describe the nature of those who are studied-- i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos-- through writing) because I’m a bit of an anthropologist, observing my fellow Americans as I move around the country.

A few days ago, I left California and arrived in Yuma, AZ.  I had thought I’d stay at least one more night in California but along the road from Joshua Tree National Park to Brawling, CA there’s nothing but agriculture and small towns that are clearly struggling to survive (they all have a Walmart, though, and, yes, I am shopping at them). As I drove through both the Central Valley and the valleys between Joshua and Brawling, I was acutely aware of how much of what we eat originates in these places. I was hoping to stop at a fresh-from-the-farm store but missed my chance on the road from Fresno. I did, however, stop at Dateland, AZ, was wowed by the date tree grove and bought some terrific dates.

I was relieved to get out of California.  I had good experiences in there, from the wild coast to redwood forests to friends’ driveway to Joshua Tree.  It just took SO long to travel the length of that incredibly long state.

The three questions that are leading conversations with folks are: 1) What comes to mind when you think about government?  (Probe: Do you distinguish between politics and administrative government: why or why not)? 2) What do you want from government?  3) What do you want from/what are your obligations to the government(s) that provides services and infrastructure? 

My premise for this research is that we in the field of public administration aren’t listening to citizens. That citizens can articulate what they want.  That, when we do listen, we use managerial frames to interpret what citizens say (e.g., citizens say they want accountability so we do performance measures – what folks mean by accountability may be something completely different) and once we have something that fits our frames, we stop listening. It’s also clear, without doing this research, that there are many “American” perspectives and our challenge, as a field, is to listen to these various perspectives and figure out what to do.

What I thought I’d hear from people is a lot of talk about accountability and disconnection (because those are the things I write about).  What I am hearing is a lot of talk about the economy.  And, it doesn’t matter who I talk to—where folks stand on the political/ideological spectrum—it’s all about the economy.  Depending on where one stands (have/have not), one wants something different from government with regard to the economy.  And this is serious business, enough to move people to change political parties. The one Democrat I talked to who switched to the Republican party after “Obamacare” was passed is balanced by the one Republican I talked to who has switched to Independent after seeing how cost cutting is affecting his retired military benefits.  Everybody realizes that things are a mess and no one has a magic bullet.

I’m also hearing an across-the-board sentiment that government is not listening to citizens.  Here, people make no distinction between political and administrative government. 

Also, there’s an interesting bi-modal response to the role government plays in citizens’ lives.  Some want government out of their lives, especially the ways in which government limits and drains businesses (let the market do what the market wants and can). Others think government is failing the people because they are so far out of our lives—they say the government has no sense of, or empathy for, what folks are going through in this Great Recession.

I talked with one woman in the restroom of the RV park in Barstow, CA (she is a “permanent” resident of the park) and she said that government has too many bad laws and not enough good ones. She said it didn’t matter because “government isn’t listening to us anyway.”  She bounced back and forth along the political spectrum, not landing in any one place (which is not unusual with the folks I’m talking to), from libertarian to radically liberal to conservative.  She talked about how many people are needlessly incarcerated and how she is embarrassed to live in the country that has the highest incarceration rate of all developed nations.  She said so many of our criminal laws are bad laws.  She gave voice to deep sentiments that exist in Southern California and Arizona about undocumented workers and “illegal aliens,” saying that government is too chicken to make the laws needed to control immigration, but not chicken to incarcerate their own.

Long talks with my hosts in Sacramento illuminated another side.  Wayne, a retired lobbyist for nonprofits and, for the last 20 or so years of his working life, the railroad, says he spent his working life trying to get government “off the backs” of business so they could do what an unregulated market should allow them to do: create jobs, create revenues in communities, etc. He said he did very little in his time as a lobbyist to support or pass legislation; most of his work was in opposing legislation. Wayne and Catherine say Keynesian fiscal policy is what got us into this multi-trillion dollar deficit/debt…and Keynesian policies (stimulus spending, mandatory health care, etc.) are not going to get us out of this mess.  Government has no idea what it is doing and macro policies end up being punitive at the micro level (administrative evil).

While I was in California, Forbes Magazine published their “America’s Most Miserable Cities” list and five of the top ten are in California (Cleveland, that fair city, is also in the top ten but knocked out of the #1 spot this year by Stockton, CA). Forbes’ variables including housing foreclosures, change in median housing values, unemployment, commute times, violent crime and, oddly enough, how well pro sports teams have fared over the past three years. California, like so many other states, is in deep trouble and the residents are feeling the pain, no matter where they fall on the “have” and “have not” continuum. And, we are led to believe that the “haves” want us to reduce spending and eliminate programs while the “have nots” want increases in spending and programs.  This is not, necessarily, the case as I am hearing from folks. Sometimes people fall cleanly into the place afforded them by where they sit on the continuum.  Sometimes they don’t.  Even the “haves” are worried about cuts in benefits, retirement, Medicare, etc.

The “soundtrack” for this journey has been the protests/revolutions going on in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin.  While I amble around the country (and I am ambling – see the new map for my actual route), people are rising up against oppression, bad economies and the rights of government/union workers.  All the while the folks I talk to are worried about their place in this arid economy, public workers in Wisconsin are saying, “no, you can’t use this economy as an excuse to decimate the rights won on the backs of our union forefathers and foremothers.” I have sympathy for my fellow public servants and sympathy for my fellow citizens as we see how belt-tightening is affecting our livelihoods and our lives.  I have solidarity with folks who are at risk of losing rights, or have lost rights, simply because of ideology/dogma.  And, yet, I don’t know how we are going to get ourselves out of the quagmires we are in without reductions in spending and without raising revenues.  

Luckily, our future are in the hands of what appears to be a particularly hopeful mix of young generations; this is a good thing. President Obama had this to say about the youthful center of the nonviolent action in Egypt (nonviolence was partly possible because the military sided with the revolutionaries – w/o this, it would have been otherwise, as we are seeing in Libya):  “And above all, we saw a new generation emerge — a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represents their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.”  I had occasion to spend time with a few kids in Sacramento who made me optimistic about the future and this new generation; my students make me equally optimistic. Let’s get these kids raised with hope (not fear) and their boundless aspirations intact.  Let’s get them working on these seemingly intractable problems as soon as possible.

I’ve hidden away for the past three days at a snowbird RV camp in Gila Bend, Arizona.  This snowbird phenomenon is quite the thing to see and experience. RV parks are everywhere. As far as the eye can see is a sea of RVs!  Augie’s Quail Trail RV Park in Gila Bend is a sweet version of the sea of RV parks elsewhere.  The rates are good and there’s no golf/pool/etc. so the place isn’t wall-to-wall RVs. More folks like me, staying for just a few days, are here along with those are camped for the duration of winter as defined wherever they call home (mostly western states and quite a few Canadians).

A few rainy days turned into clear and crisp desert winter sunshine. I’ve been resting off the physical and mental effects of the stress of the first few weeks of this journey, enjoying the sun (and terrific shower facilities!) and taking long walks with the dogs in the adjacent state trust lands (another public good!).  I’m reading Edward Abbey’s book of essays about the Southwestern deserts, Beyond the Wall, as recommended by my friend Mark.  Apt reading for the desert.  Today, I brought John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America out with me in the sun.  I first read Travels with Charley when Maggie Mae (my eldest dog) and took a month-long road-trip to eastern Ohio and back.  Reading it again (thanks to Daniel/Kana for sending me a copy), I’m drawn to the similarities of our journeys; perhaps I have been seriously channeling Steinbeck without even knowing it.  He travels the perimeter of the U.S., in three months, traveling about 10,000 miles (I had originally planned to travel about 9,000 miles but I’m likely to travel less). He’s traveling only with Charley, his canine companion.

He says this in his preface and it sure fits for where I’m at in this journey:

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over.  A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.  And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless.  We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.  Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.  Only then do frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. (Steinbeck, 1962, p. 4)


  1. Okay--is it possible that your comment on public administrators ("we in the field of public administration") is too hegemonic? Is your assertion that the entire field thinks that way? But I'm being argumentative...
    I've been studying transportation issues/policies in WA and I find it fascinating that the issue of transportation funding and infrastructure is one of the few to have bi-partisan support...but mainly because it is being framed as a jobs/economy issue. However, there is no political will for allocating more $ to transportation this year.

  2. What? Cleveland can't even be #1 in the category of "most miserable"? (sigh). I am enjoying the blog, Cheryl.

  3. The blog is wonderful Cheryl. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights. I have been reading a biography of Dorothea Lange by NYU historian Linda Gordon since you have started your journey. Lange was a photographer accidentally turned ethnographer who ended up traveling the country for the WPA doing rural photography, much of which was done in the large agribusiness fields of CA. It's an interesting read particularly given our current economic and social state of affairs. May your safe travels continue including doors that stay shut when they're supposed to!