Six Californias, Two Ontarios, and Other Bad Ideas

John Michael McGrath is a Digital Media Producer for TVO.

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Coming soon to California’s 2016 ballots (maybe), thanks to the efforts of a local billionaire: a proposal to divide the country’s wealthiest, most populous state into six separate states, because reasons. You’d think that a plan to divide up one of the world’s better-scoring subnational governments (and, despite its problems, you’d probably prefer to live in California than the Luhansk Oblast right now) into its poorest and richest regions would be a non-starter. And yet, here we are.

Let’s start with the obvious: the proposal to divide up the state of California into six states will never go anywhere ever at all, in large part because the hypothetical maybe-states would mostly return Democrats to the US Senate from now until the heat death of the universe. So the US Congress, which gets a vote on these matters and where Republicans exist in some number, will not allow it.

But even if they did, it would be a very stupid idea—which, on its own, just means that in America money can buy even very stupid ideas. So let’s lay out some of the most obvious reasons why dividing up California along the lines proposed is a very stupid idea:

1) The US Congress has only allowed states to break up in two other cases, both of which predate the end of the Civil War. Things have changed a bit since 1863.

2) Because the United States has few entrenched mechanisms for cash transfers between states (absent the military and Social Security, hurrah!), the idea amounts to telling the poorest Californians to suck it, with some additional insults about their parentage on top.

3) Silicon Valley billionaires may think they can claim San Francisco, but San Francisco has a different opinion on the matter, thank you very goddamn much. You may have heard something about protests against Google buses recently?

So, yes: this idea might make it onto the ballot in California’s 2016 vote, but if that happens, it’s hard to see it winning. If it wins, it’s impossible to see it actually being implemented seriously by the state government. And if the California legislature somehow made some pro forma effort to implement it, the laws of human ambition dictate that there’s no chance the US Congress would actually allow it.

Still, the idea is strangely seductive. “Hey, what if this were like Survivor and we just kicked everyone we don’t like off the island?” We’ve heard this recently north of the US-Canadian border: the election of Rob Ford in Toronto caused more than one urban leftist to call for the dissolution of the amalgamated city. And more recently, a Progressive Conservative on the losing end of the most recent Ontario election suggested the Greater Toronto Area should be quarantined off from the rest of the province, like a plague victim.

Now, because Canada actually has entrenched transfers between provinces, the idea of breaking up Ontario isn’t as short-sighted or cruel as breaking up US states. (Real Ontario would get a bucket of equalization payments from Greater Torontario.) But it remains a position of stubborn defeatism.

Any way you slice it, the interests of people who are not-me are different from my own. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to form a coherent level of government—it just means we have to win the argument. In the recent past, a left-wing mayor won elections in the amalgamated city of Toronto. And, as much as it pains Liberals and New Democrats in Ontario to admit it, uber-conservative Mike Harris was elected twice in this province. Hell, as I write this, Stephen Harper’s party holds seats in Toronto. Yet everyone who spends a long time losing—or, in the case of Rob Ford’s 2010 opponents, loses to someone manifestly unfit for office—wonders if maybe the game is rigged against them.

The truth is, in any area larger than a village, most people fit within the grand bell curve of democratic opinion. If you can’t win the debate roughly half the time, the problem isn’t with the electorate; it’s with your argument. Urban leftists worrying they can’t win against Ford Nation (a mathematically unfounded fear) need to sharpen their pencils. Small-government folk who fear they can’t win against the tax-and-spenders of Toronto need to open their minds—especially since the GTA is already opening its wallet.

And if California billionaires can’t deal with the fact that they live in a diverse state of 38 million people, then they can try giving their cash to the SeaSteaders. It would probably be money better spent.