LOS ANGELES -- There's a certain kind of anti-California prejudice that has always chapped my rear: "home of the fruits and nuts," "Berserkeley," "San Francisco Democrats." As though Alabama weren't a trifle strange and Utah didn't have its moments. Even (ahem) Texas ... On the other hand, you have to admit that something is happening here, and what it is, is entirely clear.

The peculiar sickness of California politics has been apparent for some time. Peter Schrag's book Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future examines that illness closely.

Not that it is startlingly new -- all friends of California have been muttering for years now: "You fools, you fools. You had the finest system of public education in America, perhaps even the world. From kindergarten through graduate school, you had great schools, and you just threw them away -- the schools and everything else government used to do here. All because you wanted property tax relief."

And needed it -- admittedly, they needed it. But they didn't have to do the stupidest thing imaginable: create a weird system of property tax relief that not only produced hideous unfairness but also gave most of the relief to huge corporations. In the annals of Dumb, this is a pip.

Perhaps I wrong the Los Angeles Times, but it seems to me that its recent retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Proposition 13, California's original "tax revolt" initiative, was curiously flaccid. It was a throwback to that gutless form of journalism we used to excuse by calling it "objective"; one side says this, and the other side says that, therefore, we will give them both equal space. The much-maligned San Francisco Chronicle actually did a far better job than the august Times in its three-part series on the anniversary of Prop 13.

How much intelligence does it take to conclude that Prop 13 has been a disaster for the state? For that matter, how much objectivity does it take? The results of Prop 13 are easily quantified.

The state has almost doubled in population since the early '60s. In the last two decades, it has built 20 new prisons but not one new campus of the University of California. Freeways, libraries, parks and schools (above all, the schools) are battered, dilapidated and shrunken. And in the eerie new politics of California that Schrag calls "neopopulist," the voters are about to respond by nuking bilingual education. That'll help.

Even Schrag admits that Prop 13 is "sacrosanct" -- that "no politician dare criticize it." It is the third rail of California politics. One reason it is impervious to criticism is precisely because its effects are so far-reaching. It gets blamed for everything short of El Nino out here, so the criticism becomes easier to dismiss. One of its side effects has been to make government less accountable and more distant. People know their potholes aren't being fixed, but it's much harder to figure out who is responsible now.

Schrag also notes a concomitant disaster, another idiotic proposition that passed due to "neopopulism": term limits. Just as we always suspected, this anodyne nostrum (I always wanted to use the word "anodyne"; it means soothing) has hideous unintended consequences. Because no one in the Legislature has any expertise anymore -- and the staff has been cut as well -- the lobbyists and special-interest groups now run the place.

Says Schrag: "When major fiscal committees handling billions of dollars or trying to deal with the intricacies of insurance regulation, school finance, welfare policy or water law are chaired by people who have been there for no more than six months; when the speaker of the assembly will necessarily be someone with four years' experience or less, and when the professional staff is as thin as it has become, the quality of the work is almost certain to decline."

Schrag writes around the issue of racism, as though it were the sin that dare not speak its name. Fortunately, Susan Rassky of Cal Berkeley, an expert on the politics of initiatives, is more blunt: "Of course racism is a part of it. Initiatives are a game where only white people play. It's a parallel universe, having no resemblance to the real population of the state."

But Schrag may be onto something even larger than our old reliable sin, talking about "a different kind of political impulse, not because it is primarily a populism of the right whose prime objective is the enervation of government itself, but because it is not particularly interested in civic engagement or in increasing the effectiveness of the citizen in government at all. ... The new populism also reflects and reinforces the declining stature of, and respect for, virtually all major public institutions and establishments, from the judicial system and the media, to the universities, to the ideal of commonweal itself." (Emphasis added.) It turns out that this is not so much a new populism as a very old American problem. In, of all places, a book review defending John Quincy Adams (written by Eric McKitrick for The New York Review of Books), I found this gem:

"An inevitable and probably necessary but ultimately pernicious legacy of the Revolution was the persuasion that government should be seen as an alien force. Those of the founding generation had done what they could to change that view, and the sovereignty of the people held the potential for a course substantially different from the one it eventually took. Government as the people's own instrument, the figurative extension of themselves and the agency that embodied their highest and deepest aspirations, was one way; the other was to see government as an encroaching presence, which the people's representatives must be ever vigilant to ward off from taking any consequential part in shaping the people's private or collective concerns."

In the anti-communitarian, market-oriented ethic of our current politics, Schrag notes, is a terrible irony: "As the public trusts the system less and less, it becomes ever more susceptible to untested, quick-fix remedies that, instead of resolving the problems of the moment, limit public choice and make long-term solutions even more difficult."

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.