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Synopsis

The early 21st century has not been kind to California's reputation for good government. But the Golden State's governance flaws reflect worrisome national trends with origins in the 1970s and 1980s. Growing voter distrust with government, a demand for services but not taxes to pay for them, a sharp decline in enlightened leadership and effective civic watchdogs, and dysfunctional political institutions have all contributed to the current governance malaise.

Until recently, San Diego, California—America's 8th largest city—seemed immune to such systematic governance disorders. This sunny beach town entered the 1990s proclaiming to be "America's Finest City," but in a few short years its reputation went from "Futureville" to "Enron-by-the-Sea." In this eye-opening and telling narrative, Steven P. Erie, Vladimir Kogan, and Scott A. MacKenzie mix policy analysis, political theory, and history to explore and explain the unintended but largely predictable failures of governance in San Diego.

Using untapped primary sources—interviews with key decision makers and public documents—and benchmarking San Diego with other leading California cities, Paradise Plundered examines critical dimensions of San Diego's governance failure: a multi-billion dollar pension deficit; a chronic budget deficit; inadequate city services and infrastructure; grandiose planning initiatives divorced from dire fiscal realities; an insulated downtown redevelopment program plagued by poorly-crafted public-private partnerships; and, for the metropolitan region, inadequate airport and port facilities, a severe underinvestment in firefighting capacity despite destructive wildfires, and heightened Mexican border security concerns.

Far from a sunny story of paradise and prosperity, this account takes stock of an important but understudied city, its failed civic leadership, and poorly performing institutions, policymaking, and planning. Though the extent of these failures may place San Diego in a league of its own, other cities are experiencing similar challenges and political changes. As such, this tale of civic woe offers valuable lessons for urban scholars, practitioners, and general readers concerned about the future of their own cities.

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