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That’s the conclusion of my piece in the latest issue of National Review, which you can now peruse online, assuming you’ve got an hour to kill (it’s a testament to the state of play in California that an essay this long left an awful lot of material on the cutting room floor).
Here’s the gist of the argument: complaints about the travails of California’s economy tend to focus on the deleterious effect that big government is having on business, which is, to be sure, a very real development. That meme, however, often obscures the fact that the group leaving California in the largest numbers is the middle class. These are not unrelated phenomena.
It should come as no surprise that the exodus of business and the wealthy has an outsized effect on labor markets, with jobs being increasingly hard to come by in the Golden State. Compounding this problem, however, is the fact that the liberal gentry that governs California has imposed its tastes as a matter of public policy.
If you can find a job, your next challenge is finding a home (or, for that matter, an apartment). Extensive land use regulations (and a general aversion to development) have kept housing prices artificially high, especially in major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco (where, to be clear, they’d already be steep even in a less fettered market).
If you don’t want to pay these astronomical rents, you can decamp to the exurbs, but the state’s terrible infrastructure means that you will lose in time what you gain in money, waiting out some of the nation’s worst traffic (try three hours a day for a 35-mile commute). We wouldn’t want to make it easier for people to get around. Carbon footprints and all that. That’s what high-speed rail is for.
There’s a lot more detail available in the piece — and more still in some of my earlier work. The NR article doesn’t even touch on the decline of California’s public schools at the hands of teacher unions, something I chronicled at length for City Journal back in 2012. If you want to round out the trilogy of my California jeremiads, you can also go back to the very first one, published in National Affairs in 2009. It’s a depressing trio, but one that gives you a good idea of how deep a hole the state is in.
When I started this grisly business five years ago, I did so in the hopes that I could help, in some small way, to spur California towards an inflection point — a renaissance along the lines of Rudy Giuliani’s New York City. Back then, I had several meetings with major Republican figures throughout the state and even briefly considered (and then wisely avoided) running for office (“Benevolent misanthrope” is tough to fit on a bumper sticker). Today, I’m convinced that these kind of pieces will someday answer the question “What went wrong?” as opposed to “When did California turn things around?”
Virtually my entire family is departing the state for Oregon or Tennessee. Many of the people I grew up with have long since taken their leave, convinced (rightly, in my judgment) that the costs of making a life in California without the aid of incumbent wealth are too high. It’s rare that cocktail hour conversation here goes longer than 15 minutes without someone sharing their exit strategy with you.
The intrinsic appeal of California never waned for these people — they still think it’s beautiful, temperate, and culturally dynamic. What it’s not, however, is livable. It’s hard to convince people to stay in a place where they can work to the limits of their abilities and endurance and still struggle to eke out a middle-class existence. Like many similarly-situated people still planted on California soil, the question in my mind is less if I will join the diaspora, but when.
Whatever California once was — whatever spell it once cast — is gone; perhaps irretrievably so (at least in the near future).
Those maniacs. They blew it up.
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