Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Middle Class is Leaving California Because California Has Left the Middle Class

 

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.

Image via Shutterstock

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  1. Richard Fulmer Member

    Driving the middle class out of the state will necessarily increase the state’s income disparity. Rather ironic that this is the result of progressive policies given that progressives claim to care about the disparity. “Love me for my intentions, not my actions,” is the left’s plea.

    • #1
    • February 26, 2014, at 4:15 AM PST
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  2. Michael Knudsen Inactive

    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. 

    No job here, for the past six months. The only thing tying me to Cali is my wife’s state gig, which we both would like to get her out of. 

    Here’s hoping Texas or Arizona can be kind to a would-be paralegal transitioning to a would-be web developer. 

    Or perhaps I can dig a ditch somewhere. I’m nothing if not flexible at this point. 

    • #2
    • February 26, 2014, at 4:15 AM PST
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  3. John Walker Contributor
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    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.

    I first visited California in 1970 and fell in love with it.

    I moved there in 1972 and from 1973 I lived on the slope of Mt. Tamalpais and was able to walk from my house to Muir Woods.

    When we left in 1991 it was like escaping East Germany. And then I spent two years battling the Franchise Tax Board (California Tax Nazis) who claimed I hadn’t “broken domicile” and hence still owed them income tax even though I no longer lived in the state or, for that matter, the country.

    My view is “let it die”. The people there have chosen their destiny. Elect Locusts, and the crops will be devoured. Quelle surprise!

    If you live there, get out. If you don’t, do not invest in any business domiciled in California. To the extent possible, do not do business with companies domiciled in California.

    • #3
    • February 26, 2014, at 4:22 AM PST
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  4. Look Away Inactive

    Maybe the CA elite are running a “kulak strategy”; get rid of the middle class, buy the remaining farm and land holdings cheap or cede them to the state for mystical environmental zones. Eventually there are no jobs so the poor, no welfare checks if there is no tax revenue, leave for Texas, Arizona, etc. What’s left is one big disneyworld for the rich and famous!

    I know, sounds like a poor plot for a Tom Clancy novel, but it has to make more sense than what CA is doing to itself.

    • #4
    • February 26, 2014, at 4:27 AM PST
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  5. Hal Brooks Inactive

    We moved to the Bay area a year ago for my wife’s job. We live on the peninsula and find it a really wonderful lifestyle. Nice weather, beautiful country, farmers markets year round, a wealth of different types of activities from camping, skiing, and ocean sports complimented by easy access to the great restaurants and artistic culture in the city. The families in the community are great and our children love it.

    The only problem is that even with a household income over $300,000 per year we can barely afford to live here. 

    At our current rate of savings it will be at least five years before we can afford to bid on a house the equivalent of the one we are now renting, a 1700 sq. ft. three bedroom house with no basement and a yard you can’t even call a postage stamp. And even then we will be carrying a million dollar plus mortgage.

    We live a very modest lifestyle, no cable television, one car, I don’t own a pair of shoes less than five years old. We love the life we have, but have already decided this a temporary stop for our family.

    • #5
    • February 26, 2014, at 4:56 AM PST
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  6. David Clark Inactive

    Moving from CA to Oregon, I was prepared for the natives to be less than welcoming to yet another southern invader. Turned out not to be a problem, by the time we got here it was all invaders, no natives.

    • #6
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:00 AM PST
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  7. Leigh Member
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    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.

    Oregon is better? 

    That’s a serious question, not snarky.

    • #7
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:00 AM PST
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  8. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    John Walker

    If you don’t, do not invest in any business domiciled in California. To the extent possible, do not do business with companies domiciled in California.

    Really? So you’re not going to buy an iPhone or a Mac, or use Google or Facebook, or buy anything with Intel Inside? Nor buy stock in any of the above companies?

    Good luck with that strategy. For all the problems Troy chronicles, California remains one of the chief centers of innovation in the American economy.

    • #8
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:08 AM PST
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  9. Larry3435 Inactive
    Leigh
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    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.

    Oregon is better? 

    That’s a serious question, not snarky. · in 2 minutes

    It actually is, Portlandia notwithstanding. But then, anyplace is. My brother is moving to Oregon, while I am moving to Nevada.

    The ideal place may be just across the Washington border from Portland, OR. Pay no income tax living in WA. Pay no sales tax shopping in OR.

    • #9
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:10 AM PST
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  10. John Walker Contributor
    Joseph Stanko
    John Walker

    If you don’t, do not invest in any business domiciled in California. To the extent possible, do not do business with companies domiciled in California.

    Really? So you’re not going to buy an iPhone or a Mac, or use Google or Facebook, or buy anything with Intel Inside? Nor buy stock in any of the above companies?

    Good luck with that strategy. For all the problems Troy chronicles, California remains one of the chief centers of innovation in the American economy.

    It’s a moral balance. I have an iPhone and a Mac. I use Google, and all of my Linux machines have Intel processors. Facebook—what’s that?

    I would not buy stock in any California or for that matter U.S. company.

    I founded a company in California. They said, at the time, that when I sold my stock, it would be free of California capital gains tax. When I sold some they said, “We lied—you owe us”. That’s when I decided to get out.

    • #10
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:23 AM PST
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  11. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Hal Brooks: We moved to the Bay area a year ago for my wife’s job. We live on the peninsula and find it a really wonderful lifestyle.

    At our current rate of savings it will be at least five years before we can afford to bid on a house the equivalent of the one we are now renting, a 1700 sq. ft. three bedroom house with no basement and a yard you can’t even call a postage stamp. And even then we will be carrying a million dollar plus mortgage.

    That’s absolutely true, but the Peninsula is one of the most desirable chunks of real estate in the nation, comparable to Manhattan. It’s not representative of the whole state.

    According to Zillow, the median home price in the San Jose metro area is $744,800. But if you move a few hours inland, the median home price in Merced drops to $159,400, less than the Arizona state median price of $178,300.

    You might ask “but who wants to live in Merced?” To which I’d respond, “and who wants to live in Arizona?”

    • #11
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:29 AM PST
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  12. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    John Walker

    It’s a moral balance. I have an iPhone and a Mac. I use Google, and all of my Linux machines have Intel processors. Facebook—what’s that?

    I would not buy stock in any California or for that matter U.S. company.

    How could I forget: I’m guessing, based on the location of its founders, that Silent Cal Productions is most likely a California company as well…

    • #12
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:33 AM PST
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  13. Annefy Member

    It takes a lot of effort to screw up a state this great. Unfortunately, we’ve had many dedicated to the cause. Anyone I know who hasn’t gotten out is talking exit strategy.

    • #13
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:34 AM PST
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  14. John Walker Contributor
    Joseph Stanko

    You might ask “but who wants to live in Merced?” To which I’d respond, “and who wants to live in Arizona?”

    In the oughts, our company, headquartered in Marin County, had a vice president who was only able to afford a house on the far side of Mount Diablo (sorry for those unacquainted with Bay Area geography, but it’s a long way away), He commuted to work every day on a motorcycle, about 90 minutes each way. When people who heard this exclaimed, “You’re crazy!” he responded, “Should I spend three hours in a car?”

    • #14
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:40 AM PST
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  15. The Cynthonian Member

    We got out of CA ahead of the current trend….late 2005. I still miss the climate, but not the traffic, taxes, and over-regulation.

    There are too many lefties here in the Puget Sound area, busily trying to import even more of California’s problems than already exist here. Mr. Cynthonian won’t go into Seattle proper unless the government makes him (last time was jury duty). We maintain our sanity by living in a semi-rural area on the Eastside, and plotting our eventual (retirement) escape to a very red part of AZ. I do wish AZ didn’t have a state income tax! That’s one advantage WA has, and it’s in the state constitution, so it’s hard to overturn. 

    Sidebar to John: the FTB chased us long after we left, too! I suspect they have a special team that goes after the ex-residents. They must be very busy these days.

    • #15
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:42 AM PST
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  16. The Cynthonian Member
    Joseph Stanko
    <SNIP>

    To which I’d respond, “and who wants to live in Arizona?” · 13 minutes ago

    We do!! To each his/her own.

    • #16
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:44 AM PST
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  17. John Walker Contributor
    The Cynthonian: We got out of CA ahead of the current trend….late 2005. I still miss the climate, but not the traffic, taxes, and over-regulation.

    My experience in Washington is that people are kind, just as they are in the midwest. They just assume you are honest and willing to deal fairly. This was such a difference from what I experienced in California in the late 1980s it was a serious culture shock.

    • #17
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:49 AM PST
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  18. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Larry3435
    Leigh
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    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.

    Oregon is better? 

    That’s a serious question, not snarky. · in 2 minutes

    It actually is, Portlandia notwithstanding. But then, anyplace is. My brother is moving to Oregon, while I am moving to Nevada.

    That’s about right. For what it’s worth, the relations I have moving up there are relocating to be close to family. Were they making the decision without outside considerations, they’d probably be going to Texas.

    Oregon’s still a pretty liberal place, but they were able to buy a reasonably-sized house for less than what they were paying for rent in Orange County. On a tight income, they’re coming out very much ahead.

    • #18
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:52 AM PST
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  19. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Joseph Stanko

    According to Zillow, the median home price in the San Jose metro area is $744,800. But if you move a few hours inland, the median home price in Merced drops to $159,400, less than the Arizona state median price of $178,300.

    You might ask “but who wants to live in Merced?” To which I’d respond, “and who wants to live in Arizona?” · 23 minutes ago

    All true, but it helps a lot if you’re working in Merced too. I can’t speak to Northern California traffic patterns as well as Southern California ones, but the problem in this part of the state is that the Inland Empire is our Merced and 40 percent of the population commutes to Los Angeles, Orange, or San Diego counties.

    If you spend 90 minutes in the car each way, every day, you’re losing the equivalent of over a month a year to sitting in traffic. If you can’t afford to live in a major urban center but have to work there, you pay for it in time rather than money. 

    • #19
    • February 26, 2014, at 5:58 AM PST
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  20. Robert Lux Member

    Your essay resonated with me in particular, as I’ve witnessed over the course of my 43 years the Ruling Class turning my state into something resembling a Latin American polity.

    Your best line: the Ruling Class inflicts such policies not because of economics but because of taste. This evokes liberalism’s squared circle: elitism + extreme egalitarianism; i.e., a smug, supercilious elite symbiotically attached to a dependent, slavish underclass. Liberalism is a permutation of the mindset of medieval polity and its ecclesiastical hierarchy. It’s the denial of republican citizenship.

    It’s the denial to people of their political nature. 

    “Taste” is actually the entry point to seeing how the moral-political has primacy over the economic. For instance, if one cannot convince people that two men can’t be married, then there’s no chance of people being convinced (at large) by libertarian, economic arguments. The disintegration of the family — the denial that men and women have different roles in society consequent to differences in soul, not merely body — is the manifestation of the denial of the political in our time. Elaborated_here_to_Poulos.

    • #20
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:05 AM PST
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  21. Locke On Member

    Real estate market willing, we’ll be out of here (SF Bay Peninsula) this year, Idaho bound.

    • #21
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:07 AM PST
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  22. John Hanson Thatcher

    I was born in CA (San Francisco) lived there through High School, left in 1967 to join Air Force, and didn’t return till 1979, when I got a job in Redwood city following graduation as an EE. Worked there (RWC and later Santa Clara) until 2001, when my job was moved to New Jersey, due to cost of maintaining facility in Santa Clara.

    While a native, I have no plans to ever return. Its OK from Ukiah/Chico north but still costs too much. NJ is not much better, but we also own a house in Conway NH, and are working to move there full time. We like winter and four seasons, so don’t really miss CA climate, but do like living where housing costs and state income taxes are lower. State is way too liberal for either my wife or I now, despite my wife still having family there. (They are libs, and she doesn’t talk to them much anyway).

    Guess we got out before the rush.

    • #22
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:34 AM PST
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  23. Robert Ham Inactive

    We left good friends, good weather and many fond memories in CA last year after 12 years this time (4 years in the 80s). Having lived and traveled around the world, I would state that CA presents many of the most beautiful places in the world (Yosemite; Tahoe; Santa Barbara; Monterey Peninsula etc). 

    Unthinking liberalism has consequences, and we are watching the result of feel-good politics now. As only one example, witness with the lack of adequate water supplies when the Sierras could readily provide more than adequate water over multiple years with common sense use of the many valleys beneath the snow level.

    • #23
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:39 AM PST
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  24. Shoshanna Inactive

    Eighteen years ago I fled the crumbling, leftist-poisoned environs of my native California and moved to the beautiful south coast of Oregon– its cities are blue, but its wide open rural areas are solidly red. 

    Not only is the cost of living considerably less– taxes, housing, insurance, gasoline… fresh Dungeness crab… — but it’s also considerably safer. No doubt because in nearly every house (including mine) there is at least one gun.

    The predators that concern us have four feet– not two. But in a place where the wilderness comes down to the ocean’s edge and the Rogue River meets the sea, in addition to bears and cougars we have sea lions, eagles, whales, deer, elk, mink, beaver, bobcats, seals, osprey, red-tailed hawks, wildflowers blooming much of the year, a temperate climate that rarely exceeds 70 degrees nor dips below 45, and a general environment that suggests one has moved to the year 1958. 

    Safe, friendly, conservative– it’s a great place to hide out from the new millennium. As for proof of its beauty, I offer my photos: http://www.pbase.com/shoshanna/coast

    Come give it a look– you’ll be welcome!

    • #24
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:40 AM PST
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  25. Casey Inactive
    Joseph Stanko: Every few years someone comes forward with the idea that California’s problems stem from being too large, that the state is “ungovernable,” hence we should split it up.

    I don’t like the names. Can’t we name one New New Mexico?

    • #25
    • February 26, 2014, at 6:56 AM PST
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  26. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    All true, but it helps a lot if you’reworkingin Merced too.

    Agreed, but let’s at least make it an apples-to-apples comparison. 

    I have no idea what my jobs prospects would be like in Merced, but if I were to move to Nevada or Arizona in search of a lower cost-of-living I’d have to find a new job there, too. In Arizona the unemployment rate is 7.6%, not all that much better than California’s 8.3%. And Nevada’s unemployment is actually higher: 8.8%.

    • #26
    • February 26, 2014, at 7:02 AM PST
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  27. David Knights Member
    Hal Brooks: SNIP

    The only problem is that even with a household income over $300,000 per year we can barely afford to live here. 

    At our current rate of savings it will be at least five years before we can afford to bid on a house the equivalent of the one we are now renting, a 1700 sq. ft. three bedroom house with no basement and a yard you can’t even call a postage stamp. And even then we will be carrying a million dollar plus mortgage.

    We live a very modest lifestyle, no cable television, one car, I don’t own a pair of shoes less than five years old. We love the life we have, but have already decided this a temporary stop for our family. · 1 hour ago

    Holy CoC word!

    • #27
    • February 26, 2014, at 7:04 AM PST
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  28. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Joseph Stanko
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    All true, but it helps a lot if you’reworkingin Merced too.

    Agreed, but let’s at least make it an apples-to-apples comparison. 

    I have no idea what my jobs prospects would be like in Merced, but if I were to move to Nevada or Arizona in search of a lower cost-of-living I’d have to find a new job there, too. In Arizona the unemployment rate is 7.6%, not all that much better than California’s 8.3%. And Nevada’s unemployment is actually higher: 8.8%. · 2 minutes ago

    All true. Of course, I’m not making the case for moving to Arizona or Nevada (two places that wouldn’t be on my relocation list, simply because I don’t do deserts), just for why things have gotten so tough in California.

    • #28
    • February 26, 2014, at 7:09 AM PST
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  29. Casey Inactive

    I’ve been only a few times but my reaction each time was “How do you live here? ” Daily life in California seems so unnecessarily difficult. And, despite what Californians seem to think, other places in this country are quite beautiful as well. I suppose I’ve visited at least 25 States and I’ve liked every one at least as well as California. Most more. So I guess one could say California is my Scarlett Johansson state.

    • #29
    • February 26, 2014, at 7:16 AM PST
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  30. Man With the Axe Member

    My daughter, age 43, divorced, 2 kids, lives in SF, and makes about $120,000 per year. That equates in purchasing power to $71,000 where I live in North Carolina according to the CNN Money cost-of-living calculator. 

    How is life for her in SF? She has no place to park and drives around looking for a spot every night when she comes home from work. The public schools are beyond terrible. She could never afford a house. She stayed in a terrible, unsuitable apartment because it was rent controlled for 10 years until new owners evicted her. She lives across from a beautiful park that is full of homeless derelicts, so her kids are not allowed to play there.

    Nice weather, though. 

    • #30
    • February 26, 2014, at 7:16 AM PST
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