This special edition of City Journal offers a comprehensive look at the problems besetting America’s largest state—and charts a way forward that would make it once again a place of wild dynamism, surging growth, and widely shared opportunity.
California continues to benefit from its breathtaking natural bounty, glorious sunshine, famous universities, innovative workers, and still-prosperous major cities. Its economy recently passed Germany’s to become the world’s fourth-largest. But the “California model,” as its progressive supporters herald it, is good for the future of neither state nor country. Through misguided policies, California is transforming into a society made up disproportionately of liberal, wealthy elites and the dependent poor, with the working and middle class increasingly harried—and leaving. For the first time, California’s population is shrinking.
Disorder and crime head the list of concerns, says author Michael Shellenberger in “America’s Shadow Self.” Filthy homeless encampments, radiating chaos, have taken over swaths of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities. Authorities have allowed the homeless—usually mentally ill and drug-addicted—to defecate and shoot up on the streets. Public space becomes off-limits to the norm-following citizen. Stephen Eide’s “The Encampment State” charts California’s failed approach to homelessness, which emphasizes generous services—worth billions yearly—over behavioral change. Homelessness rose more than 40 percent during the last decade in California while falling nationally.
Meantime, depolicing and decarceration—advocated by anti-prosecutors like L.A.’s George Gascón and other progressives in the name of racial justice—have unleashed a new wave of urban crime, Heather Mac Donald reports in “The Great Abdication.” When California officials favor thugs over the law-abiding, lock your doors. Abigail Shrier’s harrowing “Predator’s Paradise” warns about a surge in child trafficking, a result of recent laws purportedly intended to protect LGBTQ individuals but that have made it hard for police to curb prostitution.
The California model is doing damage economically, too. No state has gone further in trying to regulate its economy, as Judge Glock documents in “The Regulatory Labyrinth.” Erecting a new building or launching a small business in the Golden State requires filling out countless permit requests, filing expensive environmental reports, and getting around (or paying off) politicians and bureaucrats. Nowhere is this harming California’s economy more than in constraining the supply of new housing, driving the costs of putting a roof over one’s head into the stratosphere, as Christopher Elmendorf and M. Nolan Gray explain.
Bad policy also has much to do with the state’s recent crises of wildfires and water management, as James Meigs and Shawn Regan demonstrate. Across the board, then, California needs a more commonsense regulatory environment; our issue offers many recommendations.
California’s political monoculture, with Democrats in nearly complete control, will have to be disrupted if change is to happen. Unionized teachers block reforms, even as public school students register some of America’s worst educational outcomes, Larry Sand writes. And Sarah Anzia reveals how government unions make municipal budgeting an exercise in futility, with escalating costs, high taxes, and degrading services; statewide, too, the budget model augurs disaster, warns Steven Malanga. William Voegeli provides a history of California’s political shift: the conservative state that gave America Ronald Reagan is now run by progressive standard-bearer Gavin Newsom. In “Native Son,” Luke Thompson takes measure of the governor many see as a potential president.
There’s much more, including more hopeful developments. Theodore Kupfer interviews former tech figures who got involved to help save San Francisco, while Jordan McGillis spotlights “Golden San Diego,” a city brimming with can-do energy. And Joel Kotkin celebrates a vibrant restaurant scene, through which one can glimpse the entrepreneurial spirit that once powered California—and may yet bring it back.
—Brian C. Anderson