The Breakup San Bernardino County Needs

Instead of Splitting Away From California, Split Yourself Up Instead

The Breakup San Bernardino County Needs | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

San Bernardino County is putting secession on the November ballot—but columnist Joe Mathews thinks the nation's largest county should reconsider its ambition to become the 51st state. "Instead of splitting away from the state of California," he writes, "split yourself up." Map courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries. Illustration by Zócalo.

Dear San Bernardino County,

I understand your desire to leave California.

Your complaints—about the high costs of being here, the state’s low levels of public investment, the obstacles to building housing—all have merit. If you’re a Californian or a California entity and you haven’t thought of departure, then you probably don’t belong in the Golden State.

What I don’t understand is why you are asking your voters to endorse secession on the November ballot in order to make San Bernardino County its very own state, America’s 51st.

Because your biggest problem is that you’re too much like an American state.

Already you’re the size of one. Extending from L.A. to the Nevada and Arizona borders, you are the largest county in the United States by area. You are as big as West Virginia or Switzerland, and you occupy more land than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island put together. With nearly 2.2 million people, you have more residents than New Mexico and 14 other states.

You have many of the problems of an American state. You are politically polarized and thus hard to govern, with no clear majority party (your voters are 41 percent Democratic and 29 percent Republican, with the rest non-partisans or members of smaller parties). You’re plagued by economic inequality that matches that of the developing world (gauging by the World Bank’s Gini Index, the country you come closest to is Venezuela).

And you’re geographically divided, into regions that have little in common with one another. Almost all of your people—some 80 percent—are packed into dense urbanized areas in your southwest corner, living in cities that are effectively part of suburban, metro Los Angeles. Another 400,000 or so of your residents live in the exurbs of the high desert, in the Victor Valley. The rest are rural occupants of the vast and empty mountains and deserts of your interior.

Now, I know the people leading this push for secession—county supervisors and real estate developers—imagine that being a state will free you from the edicts coming down from Sacramento. But don’t they read the papers? American states, and especially California, are increasingly at the mercy of a massively powerful, ever-expanding federal government, and constantly must fight against the whims of whichever political partisans are in charge in D.C.

If you really want independence, why not become your own nation?  All that federal land you sit on would become yours to exploit. And you could provide more services if you could print your own money, which I presume would be called the ’dino.

It’s surprising that you don’t understand this, because you, San Bernardino County, are already under the federal thumb. Indeed, with all your national parks and wilderness areas, more than 80 percent of your land is owned by the U.S. government. The Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Defense basically control you. Of the 50 states, only Nevada is as much of a federal protectorate as you are.

Given these realities, statehood won’t mean independence. It may even make you more of a colony of Washington, since you won’t have the rest of California to fight the feds on your behalf.

If you really want independence and greater public investment, you need to think bigger: why not become your own nation? That way, all that federal land you sit on would become yours to exploit, for tourism or mining or other development. And you could provide more services and invest more in your own infrastructure if you could print your own money, which I presume would be called the ’dino.

Such a country could be an attractive place to live, especially for this columnist. Given America’s decline, and the facts that my mom is a county native and that her family—from retired schoolteachers in Redlands to milk truck drivers in Apple Valley—remain residents, I could imagine myself immigrating to Loma Linda and seeking citizenship in the new nation.

Sadly, it’s never going to happen. San Bernardino statehood would require a political miracle—the approval of the state of California, both houses of Congress, and the president. But nationhood would be even harder. Which is why we’ll never enjoy the spectacle of a delegation from your national capital—Barstow, right?—arriving in Brussels to demand membership in NATO.

So, you’ll have to resort to a second option:

Instead of splitting away from the state of California, split yourself up.

Since you are unhappy with yourself as a county, why not sell yourself off, in pieces, to your neighbors? You’d find plenty of takers. California is overdue for a resetting of its county boundaries, which were mostly determined back in the late 19th century, when there were only a million or so people living here.

Many of your communities might do better under different management. Your cities near your western border, from Chino Hills and Upland up through Victorville to Barstow, should return to Los Angeles, where they could be more easily linked to the growing Metro transit system.

Your mountain resorts and the cities on your southern border, like San Bernardino and Redlands, might become more prosperous by joining up with Riverside County, which has been more successful economically than you for the past two generations.

You could pass off your vast and sparsely populated desert precincts—everything north of Interstate 40—to Inyo or Kern Counties, which have long histories of governing empty spaces. And, in order to increase your housing supply, you could deed your land near the Nevada border to Clark County, whose dynamic developers would soon build new suburbs of Las Vegas. (This might require a land swap between states—maybe California could trade away San Bernardino land in exchange for the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.)

Some might call this breakup the end of the county, but it actually would be a new beginning. And a rare win-win for your region. Your communities would find themselves with new options and possibilities. And you’d spare yourself the indignities of being a California county, or becoming an American state.


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