Stockton Was Murdered

April 3, 2013 - 4:55 AM

Stockton

Stockton City Hall (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Were a rational person given the assignment to search this planet to find the best place for human beings to live and build wealth, he might well settle on San Joaquin County, Calif.

That is where Americans built a city called Stockton — the municipality a federal bankruptcy judge just declared dead.

How did Stockton die? It was cold-blooded murder.

San Joaquin County truly enjoys as many natural advantages as any place on Earth. It sits in the broad valley that lies between California's Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada. Two massive navigable river systems — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — descend from the Sierras and converge in an inland delta upon whose eastern edge the city of Stockton stands.

Anciently, these rivers deposited rich soils in the valley. More recently, they have provided the world with access to the agricultural wealth the valley produces. Oceangoing cargo ships can sail the San Joaquin right into the heart of Stockton itself.

Yet, despite being surrounded by fresh water, Stockton basks beneath warm and sunny skies from early in spring until well into fall.

"San Joaquin County has a dry climate, marked by very little rain," says a county planning document. "Its summers are long and dry (with a growing season averaging 292 days around Stockton), and colder, rainy weather is typical between November and April. Average annual rainfall ranges from 8 inches a year in the southern part of the county to 18 inches in the northern part."

The pioneers who arrived there in the 19th century looked at the abundant water, the dark soil and the sunny skies and did the obvious thing: They built incredible farms, planting things that would not grow in other parts of the country or would not grow as well.

Driving down a secondary highway in 20th century San Joaquin County meant driving for miles and miles along unbroken avenues of grape vines and cherry, peach and walnut trees.

Culturally, in the age of the automobile, San Joaquin County had the privilege of being about two hours east of San Francisco and two hours west of the high mountains. It was neither snowbound in winter like the mountains, nor fogbound in summer like the city — but was within easy driving distance of some of the most desolate places in the country and some of the most cosmopolitan.

So what happened to this place so favored by geology, geography and climate?

On Monday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein allowed Stockton to move forward into Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

The city's biggest bill is for the pensions of government employees — which are run by a state agency called the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS).

"Stockton's biggest creditors insured $165 million in bonds the city issued in 2007 to keep up with CalPERS payments as property taxes plummeted during the recession," The Associated Press reports. "Stockton now owes CalPERS about $900 million to cover pension promises, by far the city's largest financial obligation."

In Stockton, as in many other American cities, government became the dominant industry.

Data developed by the Census Bureau on the economic characteristics of Stockton in the years from 2007 to 2011 show that the city had an adult population (16 or older) of 212,365. Among these, there were only 84,204 private-sector wage and salary workers and another 6,927 people who were self-employed in their own unincorporated businesses.

That added up to 91,131 people in Stockton working in the private sector for a wage or salary or for their own business.

Another 18,778 in the city worked for government, and 11,426 collected food stamps.

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that none of the government workers were also collecting food stamps, there was a combined 30,204 government workers and food stamp collectors in Stockton. Those 30,204 people living off the taxpayers in the city equaled one for every three private-sector workers and self-employed business owners.

For every family in Stockton where both the mom and dad work and a teenage child also toils at, say, the local fast-food place, there is one person working for the government or collecting food stamps.

To the degree that government does not redistribute wealth from other parts of California or the nation to Stockton, that local mom, dad and teenager must carry on their shoulders the 30,204 local government workers and food stamp collectors.

Then there is that $900 million Stockton owes to the state's government worker pension system. That, too, must rest on the shoulders of the local mom, dad and working teenager — unless the state or federal government taxes money away from people elsewhere to pay for the pensions of retired Stockton government workers.

A little more than two years ago in this column, I wrote that government had killed the state of California. That crime has now been repeated on a municipal scale. Nature gave America something with unparalleled potential in Stockton and its environs. Government murdered it.