California as Alt-America

Joel Kotkin, RealClearPolitics, January 6, 2017

In 1949 the historian Carey McWilliams defined California as the “the Great Exception”—a place so different from the rest of America as to seem almost a separate country. In the ensuing half-century, the Golden State became not so much exceptional but predictive of the rest of the nation: California’s approaches to public education, the environment, politics, community-building and lifestyle often became national standards, and even normative.

Today California is returning to its outlier roots, defying many of the political trends that define most of the country. Rather than adjust to changing conditions, the state seems determined to go it alone as a bastion of progressivism. Some Californians, going farther out on a limb, have proposed separating from the rest of the country entirely; a ballot measure on that proposition has been proposed for 2018.

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The election of Donald Trump has expanded the widening gap. The two biggest points of contention going forward are likely to be climate change, which has come to dominate California’s policy agenda, and immigration, a critical issue to the rising Latino political class, Silicon Valley and the state’s entrenched progressive activists.

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California’s recent economic success seemingly makes it a compelling “alt-America.” After a severe decline in the Great Recession, the economy has roared back, and since 2010 has outpaced the national average.  But if you go back to 2000, metro areas such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Phoenix—all in lower-tax, regulation-light states—have expanded their employment by twice or more than that in  Los Angeles.

Indeed, a closer examination shows that the California “boom” is really about one region, the tech-rich San Francisco Bay Area, with roughly half the state’s job growth recorded there since 2007 even though the region accounts for barely a fifth of the state’s population. Outside the Bay Area, the vast majority of employment gains have been in low-paying retail, hospitality and medical fields. And even in Silicon Valley itself, a large portion of the population, notably Latinos, are downwardly mobile given the loss of manufacturing jobs.

According to the most recent Social Science Research Council report, the state overall suffers the greatest levels of income inequality in the nation; the Public Policy Institute places the gap well over 10 percent higher than the national average. And though California may be home to some of the wealthiest communities in the nation, accounting for 15 of the 20 wealthiest, its poverty rate, adjusted for cost, is also the highest in the nation. Indeed, a recent United Way study found that half of all California Latinos, and some 40 percent of African-Americans, have incomes below the cost of necessities (the “Real Cost Measure”). Among non-citizens, 60 percent of households have incomes below the Real Cost Measure, a figure that stretches to 80 percent below among Latinos.

In sharp contrast to the 1960s California governed by Jerry Brown’s great father, Pat, upward mobility is not particularly promising for the state’s majority Latino next generation. Not only are housing prices out of reach for all but a few, but the state’s public education system ranks 40th in the nation, behind New York, Texas and South Carolina.  If California remains the technological leader, it is also becoming the harbinger of something else—a kind of feudal society divided by a rich elite and a larger poverty class, while the middle class either struggles or leaves town.

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The new California model depends largely on one thing: the profits of the very rich. Nearly 70 percent of the state budget comes from income tax, half of which is paid by the 1 percent wealthiest residents (the top 10 percent of earners accounted for nearly 80 percent). This makes the state a model of fiscal instability. As long as the Silicon Valley oligarchs and the real estate speculators do well, California can tap their wealth to pay its massive pension debt, and expand the welfare state inexorably for its increasingly redundant working-class population.

It’s highly dubious this model would work for the rest of the country. Due largely to its concentration of venture capital, roughly half the nation’s total, Silicon Valley may be able to continue to dominate whatever is the “next big thing,” at least in the early stages. {snip}

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Instead of a role model for the future, the Golden State seems likely to become a cross between Hawaii and Tijuana, a land for the aging rich and their servants. It still remains a perfect social model for a progressive political regime, but perhaps not one the rest of the country would likely wish to, or afford, to adopt.

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