Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag, a longtime education writer and editor, is the author of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future and most recently, California: America's High-Stakes Experiment. He is a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Recent Articles

Take the Initiative, Please: Referendum Madness in California

Ballot initiatives were supposed to make government more responsive to the people. In California, a series of referenda has had just the opposite effect.

B y now the best chicken-and-egg argument in California politics is: Which came first, the unresponsiveness, arrogance, and incompetence of California's elected politicians or the orgy of initiatives designed to bypass cretin government and set things straight? What's certain is that ever since the passage of Proposition 13, the mother of all latter-day tax revolts, in June 1978, the state has been locked into a vicious cycle in which each plebiscitary reform, by either mandating or prohibiting certain policies, has sharply reduced the discretion of elected officials. This, in turn, has made it still harder for local and state government to respond to new problems, thus bringing still more pressure for extraordinary ballot measures. In November, there will be another turn of the wheel-and a big one at that-with consequences that will reverberate far beyond the Sierras. Californians approved only two initiatives in the 1950s and three in the 1960s. In the 1970s, they approved 7; in the...

Declaring War on the Drug War

T here are few issues on which Americans are as much out of sync with their elected leaders as they are on the so-called war on drugs: suppression of crops and traffickers abroad, interdiction at the border, criminal sanctions for users at home. If it's hard to find voters who believe U.S. drug policies are working, it's even harder to find politicians willing to recognize and confront that they're not. For the past four years, Bill Zimmerman, with funding from billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros and a few other deep-pocket libertarians, has been making a living exploiting that gap. Since 1996 Zimmerman's Campaign for New Drug Policies has managed to pass initiatives in seven states, from Maine to California, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, and chances are good he'll add a few more this fall. So far, his record is seven wins and no losses. Now Zimmerman, a longtime California political consultant and liberal activist, is broadening the campaign, aiming to...

A Quagmire for Our Time

A t least since 1996, when voters in california and Arizona approved ballot initiatives legalizing the medical use of marijuana, Americans have been trying to send the same message to Washington, D.C.: The nation's escalating, $20-billion drug war is a disastrous and costly failure that is stuffing the prisons, ruining thousands of lives both here and abroad, and producing few perceptible gains--except maybe in the careers of politicians. With every passing year, the message becomes louder. In elections that followed passage of the California and Arizona initiatives, similar measures have been passed in Oregon, Washington State, Maine, Alaska, Colorado, and Nevada, many of them by overwhelming majorities. Last year a medical-marijuana bill was also approved by the Hawaii legislature and signed by the governor. In the summer of 1998, Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, a leading drug-war hawk, wrote a gag rule into the District of Columbia's appropriation bill to prohibit a...


I f California's misbegotten electricity deregulation scheme is ever reduced to canvas or film, the artist would have to be some cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Federico Fellini. At one level, it's a surreal story of grossly compounded economic errors; at another, a gruesome morality tale--not only about corporate greed and political stupidity, but about the illusions of a new economy floating, detached, in some space of its own, unburdened by the problems of old-economy infrastructure and government. The resulting disaster has caused John Bryson--the CEO of Edison International, in whose offices much of this deal cooked up, to declare it a mistake and call for re-regulation. It is prompting serious talk about having the state seize the whole California power system and construct its own generating facilities. And it has succeeded in making Gray Davis, California's ever cautious New Democratic governor, sound like William Jennings Bryan. "California's deregulation scheme is a...

Regressive Recovery

If California's present is the nation's future, then the Golden State's split-level prosperity is an ominous social indicator.

B y now it has become a truism that the California economy, which fell further than the rest of the nation in the recession of the early 1990s, and took longer to recover, has come back vigorously and is now outpacing the national economy. That's true whether one measures the rise in jobs, personal income, or the state's overall output in goods and services. California's unemployment rate is still a full point higher than the national rate, but as the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE) summarized early in 1997, "the state has regained all the jobs lost between 1990 and 1994 [and] most economists expect that the California economy will grow in 1997 and 1998—outpacing the nation each year." More impressively, the recovery was led by what CCSCE calls "future high growth sectors": high technology; foreign trade, particularly with Latin America and the nations of the Pacific Rim; tourism and entertainment; and professional services—all sectors regarded as...