Sunday, April 29, 2012

Middle class to California: Drop dead


California, where I lived for more than 10 years, is an American tragedy writ large.

By now no one doubts that. Even Californians who used to express a smug condescension toward less favored parts of the formerly United States can't hide from reality. The state's quality of life has been all but destroyed other than for the very rich. There are people who have made an art form of writing obituaries -- at the old pre-tabloid Times of London it was a respected, plum job -- but the demise of the Golden State is so sad that it's painful to consider.


California can't be fixed, except perhaps in a purely economic sense that leaves out of account almost everything that formerly lured Americans to the place. (Even that is doubtful.) Maybe there is some point in analyzing the cataclysm that has turned California into Mississippi with Mexicans on the plantation and millionaires in the plantation house.

Steven Greenhut, writing in the Orange County Register (the county is a tapestry of suburbs south of L.A.), still wants to believe in the "Dream" but seems to recognize it's near hopeless. His commentary is headlined, "California to middle class: drop dead."
The state is run for the benefit of the very rich, the very poor and public employees. As a result, population growth has slowed as younger people and businesses are pushed out. ...

The state is still growing, but this decline in the rate of growth is a symbolic turning point: The California Dream is over. People don't want to come here even though this is, with little question, the most beautiful state in the union. Americans – even those who like to mock our state – ought to think about what this means for our nation.
California has always been a magnet – a land that has attracted people from across the nation and the world. It's a place that was known for its entrepreneurial spirit and open culture. But it has been turned into a regulatory and tax nightmare, a place where those who already have money can live in their coastal palaces and enjoy the splendor of the landscapes, but where it's unnecessarily difficult to move one's way up the economic ladder. The USC study doesn't reveal anything new as much as it confirms established trends.
We'll get back to that in a moment. First, though, Greenhut does understand some of the state's apparently statutory dysfunction:

California's elected officials have been doing as little planning as possible, unless one counts planning to spend tens of billions of dollars the state doesn't have on a high-speed rail line that will partially replicate what the airlines already do. Our leaders are battling new water-storage facilities and punishing farmers with absurd water-use restrictions. They impose roadblocks to building new highway systems, and land-use regulations make it nearly impossible to build the homes and businesses necessary to meet the needs of a growing population. You can hardly call that planning. ...

This is not a healthy society. And the demographic changes point to an aging population. Far from reducing the burdens on the state government, this will increase them. State officials are not building to meet future needs, but they have been squandering future dollars on excessive pay and pension packages for public employees. Look for a battle between spending to provide services for lower-income Californians and retirement benefits for the most powerful special interest group in the state, public employees. There's no chance the state's most serious fiscal issues will be solved or even addressed soon. Earlier this month, Democratic Assembly leaders announced that they have no time to deal with the governor's modest pension reform plan. They do have time to deal with hundreds of other bills, most of which range from the silly to the crazy.

In other ways, though, Greenhut misunderstands the California problem. Like many of his fellow citizens, and certainly not only in California, he thinks the trouble is about not enough growth. He is typical of homo economicus; he can't conceive of a good life that isn't tied up with more of everything, including population.


"Four million more people have left California for other states in the past two decades than have come here from other states, according to demographer Joel Kotkin," Greenhut says. "The population growth has been coming mainly from immigrants and in-state births, but now the USC study shows that immigrants are going elsewhere. A cynic might say that California's liberal elites have ended the state's contentious battles over illegal immigration by destroying opportunities here."
If I read him correctly, he thinks population growth is by definition a good, or a necessary condition for good. Immigrants "going elsewhere," that's by definition bad. He concludes his tangled thought by implying that destroyed opportunities are a bummer because illegals look for better opportunities elsewhere.


Greenhut calls Joel Kotkin "an old-time liberal." I wouldn't go that far; I'd go farther, call Kotkin insane, an America-hating sickbag. He thinks immigration is our only hope, along with "America’s successful evolution toward a society that will eventually be majority nonwhite, a factor that could prove critical in U.S. relations with developing nations, who will dominate the world’s economic growth for the foreseeable future." You can almost picture him rubbing his hands and salivating as he imagines "persons of color" the dominant ethnicity.

But is Greenhut any different, really, from Kotkin? Greenhut says:

California's leaders want a slower-growing population. Many Californians, even more conservative ones, will be happy that there will be fewer people and less development. But it's disturbing that California's official policy has been to punish people who want to pursue their dreams here. The state's Draconian land-use policies involve limiting growth, thus inflating the cost of property near the coast and pushing less-affluent people inland and to other states.

Greenhut has it backwards, or at least, his view is entirely one-sided. California may be inviting the middle class to drop dead, but the middle class feels the same about California. High taxes and kudzu-like regulations are part of the reason, but unlike demographers and economists, ordinary people have some human values left. According to the Public Population Institute of California, "With just over 37 million people, according to the 2010 Census, California is one and a half times as populous as second-place Texas (25 million). By 2020, California’s population is projected to reach 42 to 48 million people."

No amount of planning can deal with even the state's current overpopulation, let alone an additional 5 to 10 million. The best that planners can do under these circumstances is forcing greater density -- squeezing ever-greater numbers into the same space. More high rise Tokyo-style dwellings. More people commuting in the kind of mass transit cattle cars typical of New York and Boston. Greenhut thinks this will enable immigrants to "pursue their dreams."


"What I find reprehensible beyond belief is that the people pushing [high-density housing] themselves live in single-family homes and often drive very fancy cars, but want everyone else to live like my grandmother did in Brownsville in Brooklyn in the 1920s," Kotkin said, pointing to the "smart-growth" policies that dominate development decisions across California.
It sounds like he's not arguing against high-density housing; rather, he wants it to be equally forced on the wealthy, so they can discover the joys of Brooklyn slum dwelling with families packaged eight or ten to a room. Another post on his blog, however, reveals that he's made his peace with the single family house ... as long as it's home to a big immigrant family.

Some companies, such as Pulte Homes and Lennar, are betting that the multi-generational home — not the rental apartment — may well be the next big thing in housing. These firms report that demand for this kind of product is particularly strong among immigrants and their children.

Lennar has already developed models — complete with separate entrances and kitchens for kids or grandparents — in Phoenix, Bakersfield, the Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles and San Diego, and is planning to extend the concept to other markets. “This kind of housing solves a lot of problems,” suggests Jeff Roos, Lennar’s regional president for the western U.S. 

No it doesn't. A neighborhood of single-family houses shared by three generations is a horizontal Brownsville, with almost the same problems of crowding, noise, and traffic. 

You begin to understand the California disaster. Greenhut probably thinks he's ideologically opposite, or at least different, from Kotkin. But they both believe the future depends on population growth -- Kotkin because he worships immigration, Greenhut because he worships, well, any kind of growth as the road to an abstract prosperity. Neither can imagine that lots of Americans detest, and many middle class Californians are fleeing, the ever-denser Hell of their common Utopia.



Rick Darby said...

Obviously a few kinks left in the design. I'll take care of them in due time. Meanwhile, please be tolerant.

Stogie said...

Rick, in response to your last post, I have added a blog archive in the sidebar. Now readers can call up postings from the life of the blog.

If you need any further retouching, just let me know.

Anonymous said...

Your latest post has me holding my head (in mental anguish) & laughing out loud.

I have never been to California & have only heard horror stories from those who have been there. Problem is most of the world is becoming an ever denser Hell filled w/ noise, traffic & pollution.

Fareed Zakaria touted similiar views to Greenhut, observing that in 2050 USA will still be an economically vibrant country w/ a young population due to immigration, as compared to other developed nations w/ aging populations. Apparently population density has no impact on quality of life as long as we have money.

Rick Darby said...


I am glad to see that someone still appreciates the difference between quality of life and economic growth. Sure, the economy matters -- poverty isn't conducive to quality of life -- but endlessly adding more people to the population so there are more customers usually doesn't make better living conditions.

Stogie said...

Rick, if California were a person, it would be judged insane. One gets the impression that the state is run by college freshmen and sophomores who are also members of some radical, extremist group.

Will the voters ever wake up? Probably not. If I were a younger man I would flee with the outgoing crowd to better shores.