The Golden State is on a path to high-tech feudalism, but there’s still time to change course.
“We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” declared then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. “Not only can we lead California into the future . . . we can show the nation and the world how to get there.” When a movie star who once played Hercules says so who’s to disagree? The idea of California as a model, of course, precedes the former governor’s tenure. Now the state’s anti-Trump resistance—in its zeal on matters concerning climate, technology, gender, or race—believes that it knows how to create a just, affluent, and enlightened society. “The future depends on us,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at his inauguration. “And we will seize this moment.”
In truth, the Golden State is becoming a semi-feudal kingdom, with the nation’s widest gap between middle and upper incomes—72 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 57 percent—and its highest poverty rate. Roughly half of America’s homeless live in Los Angeles or San Francisco, which now has the highest property crime rate among major cities. California hasn’t yet become a full-scale dystopia, of course, but it’s heading in a troubling direction.
This didn’t have to happen. No place on earth has more going for it than the Golden State. Unlike the East Coast and Midwest, California benefited from comparatively late industrialization, with an economy based less on auto manufacturing and steel than on science-based fields like aerospace, software, and semiconductors. In the mid-twentieth century, the state also gained from the best aspects of progressive rule, culminating in an elite public university system, a massive water system reminiscent of the Roman Empire, and a vast infrastructure network of highways, ports, and bridges. The state was fortunate, too, in drawing people from around the U.S. and the world. The eighteenth-century French traveler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur described the American as “this new man,” and California—innovative, independent, and less bound by tradition or old prejudice—reflected that insight. Though remnants of this California still exist, its population is aging, less mobile, and more pessimistic, and its roads, schools, and universities are in decline.
In the second half of the twentieth century, California’s remarkably diverse economy spread prosperity from the coast into the state’s inland regions. Though pockets of severe poverty existed—urban barrios, south Los Angeles, the rural Central Valley—they were limited in scope. In fact, growth often favored suburban and exurban communities, where middle-class families, including minorities, settled after World War II.
In the last two decades, the state has adopted policies that undermine the basis for middle-class growth. State energy policies, for example, have made California’s gas and electricity prices among the steepest in the country. Since 2011, electricity prices have risen five times faster than the national average. Meantime, strict land-use controls have raised housing costs to the nation’s highest, while taxes—once average, considering California’s urban scale—now exceed those of virtually every state. At the same time, California’s economy has shed industrial diversity in favor of dependence on one industry: Big Tech. Just a decade before, the state’s largest firms included those in the aerospace, finance, energy, and service industries. Today’s 11 largest companies hail from the tech sector, while energy firms—excluding Chevron, which has moved much of its operations to Houston—have disappeared. Not a single top aerospace firm—the iconic industry of twentieth-century California—retains its headquarters here.
Though lionized in the press, this tech-oriented economy hasn’t resulted in that many middle- and high-paying job opportunities for Californians, particularly outside the Bay Area. Since 2008, notes Chapman University’s Marshall Toplansky, the state has created five times the number of low-paying, as opposed to high-wage, jobs. A remarkable 86 percent of new jobs paid below the median income, while almost half paid under $40,000. Moreover, California, including Silicon Valley, created fewer high-paying positions than the national average, and far less than prime competitors like Salt Lake City, Seattle, or Austin. Los Angeles County features the lowest pay of any of the nation’s 50 largest counties.
No state advertises its multicultural bona fides more than California, now a majority-minority state. This is evident at the University of California, where professors are required to prove their service to “people of color,” to the state’s high school curricula, with its new ethnic studies component. Much of California’s anti-Trump resistance has a racial context. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sued the administration numerous times over immigration policy while he helps ensure California’s distinction as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. So far, more than 1 million illegal residents have received driver’s licenses, and they qualify for free health care, too. San Francisco now permits illegal immigrants to vote in local elections.
Such radical policies may make progressives feel better about themselves, though they seem less concerned about how these actions affect everyday people. California’s Latinos and African-Americans have seen good blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and energy vanish. According to one United Way study, over half of Latino households can barely pay their bills. “For Latinos,” notes long-time political consultant Mike Madrid, “the California Dream is becoming an unattainable fantasy.”
In the past, poorer Californians could count on education to help them move up. But today’s educators appear more interested in political indoctrination than results. Among the 50 states, California ranked 49th in the performance of low-income students. In wealthy San Francisco, test scores for black students are the worst of any California county. Many minority residents, especially African-Americans, are fleeing the state. In a recent UC Berkeley poll, 58 percent of black expressed interest in leaving California, a higher percentage than for any racial group, though approximately 45 percent of Asians and Latinos also considered moving out.
Perhaps the biggest demographic disaster is generational. For decades, California incubated youth culture, creating trends like beatniks, hippies, surfers, and Latino and Asian art, music, and cuisine. The state is a fountainhead of youthful wokeness and rebellion, but that may prove short-lived as millennials leave. From 2014 to 2018, notes demographer Wendell Cox, net domestic out-migration grew from 46,000 to 156,000. The exiles are increasingly in their family-formation years. In the 2010s, California suffered higher net declines in virtually every age category under 54, with the biggest rate of loss coming among the 35-to-44 cohort.
As families with children leave, and international migration slows to one-third of Texas’s level, the remaining population is rapidly aging. Since 2010, California’s fertility rate has dropped 60 percent, more than the national average; the state is now aging 50 percent more rapidly than the rest of the country. A growing number of tech firms and millennials have headed to the Intermountain West. Low rates of homeownership among younger people play a big role in this trend, with California millennials forced to rent, with little chance of buying their own home, while many of the state’s biggest metros lead the nation in long-term owners. California is increasingly a greying refuge for those who bought property when housing was affordable.
After Governor Schwarzenegger morphed into a progressive environmentalist, climate concerns began driving state policy. His successors have embraced California “leadership” on climate issues. Jerry Brown recently told a crowd in China that the rest of the world should follow California’s example. The state’s top Democrats, like state senate president pro tem Kevin DeLeon, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, now compete for the green mantle.
Their policies have worsened conditions for many middle- and working-class Californians. Oblivious to these concerns, Greens ignore practical ideas—nuclear power, natural gas cars, job creation in affordable areas, home-based work—that could help reduce emissions without disrupting people’s lives. Ultra-green policies also work against the state’s proclaimed goal of building more than 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. In accordance with its efforts to reduce car use, the state mandates that most growth occurs in already-crowded coastal areas, where land prices are highest. But in cities like San Francisco, the cost of building one unit for a homeless person surpasses $700,000. California’s inland regions, though experiencing population gains, keep losing state funding for decrepit highways in favor of urban-centric, mass transit projects—yet transit use has stagnated, especially in greater Los Angeles.
The state, nevertheless, continues its pursuit of policies that would eliminate all fossil fuels and nuclear power—outpacing national or even Paris Accord levels and guaranteeing ever-rising energy prices. Mandating everything from electric cars to electric homes will only drive more working-class Californians into “energy poverty.” High energy prices also directly affect the manufacturing and logistics firms that employ blue-collar workers at decent wages. Business relocation expert Joe Vranich notes that industrial firms account for many of the 2,000 employers that left the state this decade. California’s industrial growth has fallen to the bottom tier of states; last year, it ranked 44th, with a rate of growth one-third to one-quarter that of prime competitors like Texas, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.
Similarly, the high energy prices tend to hit the interior counties that, besides being poorer, have far less temperate climates. Cities like Bakersfield, capital of the state’s once-vibrant oil industry, are particularly hard-hit. High energy prices will cost the region, northeast of the Los Angeles Basin, 14,000 generally high-paid jobs, even as the state continues to import oil from Saudi Arabia.
California’s leaders apply climate change to excuse virtually every failure of state policy. During the California drought, Brown and his minions blamed the “climate” for the dry period, refusing to take responsibility for insufficient water storage that would have helped farmers. When the rains returned and reservoirs filled, this argument was forgotten, and little effort has been made to conserve water for next time. Likewise, Newsom and his supporters in the media have blamed recent fires on changes in the global climate, but the disaster had as much to do with green mandates against controlled burns and brush clearance than anything occurring on a planetary scale. Brown joined greens and others in blocking such sensible policies.
Few climate advocates ever seem to ask if their policies actually help the planet. Indeed, California’s green policy, as one paper demonstrates, may be increasing total greenhouse-gas emissions by pushing people and industries to states with less mild climates. In the past decade, the state ranked 40th in per-capita reductions, and its global carbon footprint is minimal. Renewable energy may be expensive and unreliable, but state policy nevertheless enriches the green-energy investments of tech leaders, even when their efforts—like the Google-backed Ivanpah solar farm—fail to deliver affordable, reliable energy.
It’s not so surprising, given these enthusiasms, that progressive politicians like Garcetti—who leads a city with paralyzing traffic congestion, rampant inequality, a huge rat infestation, and proliferating homeless camps—would rather talk about becoming chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
Reality is asserting itself, though. Tech firms already show signs of restlessness with the current regulatory regime and appear to be shifting employment to other states, notably Texas, Tennessee, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona. Economic-modeling firm Emsi estimates that several states—Idaho, Tennessee, Washington, and Utah—are growing their tech employment faster than California. The state is losing momentum in professional and technical services—the largest high-wage sector—and now stands roughly in the middle of the pack behind other western states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Florida. And Assembly Bill 5, the state law regulating certain forms of contract labor, reclassifies part-time workers. Aimed initially at ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft, the legislation also extends to independent contractors in industries from media to trucking.
At some point, as even Brown noted, the ultra-high capital gains returns will fall and, combined with the costs of an expanding welfare state, could leave the state in fiscal chaos. Big Tech could stumble, a possibility made more real by the recent $100 billion drop in the value of privately held “unicorn” companies, including WeWork. If the tech economy slows, a rift could develop between two of the state’s biggest forces—unions and the green establishment—over future levels of taxation. More than two-thirds of California cities don’t have any funds set aside for retiree health care and other retirement expenses. The state also confronts $1 trillion in pension debt, according to former Democratic state senator Joe Nation. U.S. News & Report ranks California, despite the tech boom, 42nd in fiscal health among the states.
The good news: some Californians are waking up. A recent PPIC poll found that increasing proportions of Californians believe that the state is headed in the wrong direction—a figure that exceeds 55 percent in the inland areas. And voters dislike the state legislature even more than they dislike Donald Trump. Newsom’s approval rating stands at 43 percent, placing him toward the bottom among the nation’s governors. A conservative-led campaign to recall him is unlikely to succeed, but surveys reveal growing opposition to the new tax hikes proposed by the legislature. There’s a growing concern about the state’s expanding homeless population.
And a rebellion against the state’s energy policies is already under way. Recently, 110 cities, with total population exceeding 8 million, have demanded changes in California’s drive to prevent new natural gas hookups. The state’s Chamber of Commerce and the three most prominent ethnic chambers—African-American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific—have joined this effort.
Californians need less bombast and progressive pretense from their leaders and more attention to policies that could counteract the economic and demographic tides threatening the state. On its current course, California increasingly resembles a model of what the late Taichi Sakaiya called “high-tech feudalism,” with a small population of wealthy residents and a growing mass of modern-day serfs. Delusion and preening ultimately have limits, as more Californians are beginning to recognize. As the 2020s beckon, the time for the state to change course is now.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).