California's manifestly depressing destiny

I come from a long line of Americans who came to this state from less hospitable climates (I moved from Ohio and grew up in Pennsylvania) for a chance to be part of the California Dream. I fell in love with the state the moment I crossed the Arizona line, dog and cat and junk in tow, despite the 110 degree heat and bleak desert landscape. There’s something so appealing about California, yet the state government is practically at war with the entrepreneurial, anything-goes attitude that has long made California such a valued destination. Author Joel Kotkin gave a great talk recently at a Claremont Institute event in Southern California where he called the state’s progressives “regressives” because of their distinctly anti-growth attitudes. Kotkin is an old Pat-Brown type of liberal — a supporter of policies that help the working class and middle class. Yet today’s liberals who control California are elite types who promote a brand of slow-growth environmentalism that knocks several rungs out of the economic ladder.

Here’s how Kotkin put it in a November Forbes article:  “The road north across the Golden Gate leads to some of the prettiest counties in North America. Yet behind the lovely rolling hills, wineries, ranches and picturesque once-rural towns lies a demographic time bomb that neither political party is ready to address. Paradise is having a problem with the evolving economy. A generational conflict is brewing, pitting the interests and predilections of well-heeled boomers against a growing, predominately Latino working class. And neither the emerging ‘progressive’ politics nor laissez-faire conservatism is offering much in the way of a solution.”

I linked to a newgeography article (Kotkin’s site), which argues that “Southern California is starting to look a lot like a third-world economy, service based, inequitable, serving a wealthy, mostly aging few, with little opportunity for younger workers and a large underclass.”

This is true throughout our once-grand state. Yet the dominant political culture here promotes more of the same policies that are destroying opportunities for California’s working class. I wrote a column a while ago about how Jerry Brown sees Marin County as the model for the state. But Marin is a wealthy, predominantly white enclave that epitomizes what Kotkin is writing about. There a wealthy elite enjoys paradise, but there are few opportunities for newcomers to move their way up the economic ladder.

This is why people are leaving California for places such as Texas. Allied Van Lines found that California has a net out-migration and that Texas is the leader in newcomers. Republicans rightly focus on our state’s ceaseless attacks on business through excessive regulation and high taxes. But more is at work than this. Many of the people I know who left or plan on leaving California do so not because they own businesses or have lost their jobs at businesses, but because they sense that this state’s leadership is hostile to their interests. Notice also at the increasing gap between highly regulated small businesses and the underground economy. If I hire someone to trim my trees, the legit small business — which must conform to absurdly costly regulations and rules — cannot compete with the guy who just comes by in a pick up truck and works for cash. This is the Third-World economy and it is caused by government policies.

No gimmick will fix this, and all the governor is offering is gimmicks. We need a change in attitude at the state Capitol. And this won’t happen until voters wise up. No wonder most observers are pessimistic about California’s future.

–Steven Greenhut

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  1. John Seiler
    John Seiler 7 January, 2010, 19:47

    Right you are, Steve. My background is similar: Grew up in Michigan, came here from humid Washington, D.C. in 1987. It really was “California Dreamin’.” But the state has changed much for the worse.

    Even after the housing crash, a median-priced home in Orange County still costs more than $500,000. That means you family income has to be above $100,000 to even think about living here and leading a typical middle-class lifestyle. And if you can make that kind of money, maybe your kids won’t be able to do so — meaning they’ll move somewhere with a less Soviet government.

    Then there are all the hassles of a hyper-regulated state. The only things legal in California are things they haven’t yet figured out how to make illegal.

    Still, as I enjoy another balmy day in January in Huntington Beach, I’m not missing the record cold “global warming” weather back East. So I guess they got me — for now.

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