Hysteria Over California's Decline Reaches New Heights

 

Among some conservative circles, it’s become fashionable to say that liberals “hate America” any time Democrats try to do, well, anything.

Notwithstanding the illogic of hating one’s own home, I don’t think that liberals hate America. I just think they (we) have different ideas about how to improve America. What’s become disturbingly evident recently, however, is that the Wall Street Journal, a conservative-leaning publication that generally likes big, wealthy things, really seems to have it in for California.

Over the past year or so, the Journal has published no fewer than three op-eds, each more desperate than the last, lambasting California’s land use policies and their supposed drain on the state’s economy. The first two came from Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, both of whom are venerable scholars who, though I don’t agree with them, have long staked out their places in the spectrum of urban ideology.

Recently, they were joined by Allysia Finley, a WSJ assistant editorial page editor with no apparent experience in land use. I can hear her senior editor saying, "oh, just cook up some crap about California. Readers in Middle America will eat it up." 

Borrowing a metaphor from Middle America, Finley's column "The Reverse-Joad Effect,"  posits that a recent trend of out-migration of lower-income residents from California doesn’t just reflect a shaky economy and relatively high real estate prices in the broad sense. Finley she has narrowed down the eastward exodus to—drumroll—restrictive land use policies. That is to say, of all the micro- and macro-economic effects that influence migration, it’s land use that deserves the finger pointing. (Finley doesn’t actually name any policies, but we’ll get to that later.)

You don’t have to be a State of Jefferson separatist to admit that our state has problems. I’m as loyal a California patriot as they come, so I know that our budget is a mess, our schools are distressed, and our cities, through improving, have a long way to go. But I’m still going to defend California, and its land-use policies, against specious reasoning and gross distortions.

As I have done in response to Cox and Kotkin in the past, I’d like to extract a few of Finley’s gems-though she has far more than either of them did—and offer a few further thoughts.

Finley writes:

It is ironic that many of the intended beneficiaries of California's liberal government are running for the state line—and that progressive policies appear to be what's driving them away.

No, it's not ironic. That's how it's supposed to work. Benefiting from social services doesn’t mean that recipients have to stay. In fact, they could have benefited so much that they became prosperous enough to move wherever they choose.

Finley cites no studies or surveys to determine why people are leaving (or even that California's government is liberal; maybe she's too young to remember George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, or Arnold Schwarzenegger; maybe she's never been to California). Even if there’s a grain of truth to this, it’s not the policies that are driving people away. It’s the consequences of those policies—intended and otherwise—that are driving them away. I don’t think anyone is saying, “man, that DU/acre regulation really sticks in my craw; Abilene, here we come.”

For starters, zoning laws, which liberals favor to control "suburban sprawl," have constrained California's housing supply and ratcheted up prices.

Naturally, high housing prices can turn people away; we'd all like to pay less. But blaming high housing prices on regulation--and not on supply and demand--seems a bit much. 3.4 million people leave the state, and we start with zoning laws? Remind me to write to the authors of every major textbook on immigration and encourage them to update their first chapters.

But Finley implies that the healthiest states are those where development is allowed to roam fee. But, while suburbia may have been invented in Levittown, it was perfected and executed on its grandest scale in California, with zoning laws that are imposed on a city-by-city basis.

It’s true that liberals generally tend to oppose sprawl. Those liberal policies come in two varieties: first, many liberals favor controls that preserve open space and farmland; second, they often favor policies that promote compact development. Traditionally, these two approaches are supposed to work in tandem in order to ensure an adequate supply of housing in favorable locations while preserving land. It’s the conservatives—policymakers, developers, and, often, residents alike—who favor low-density, urban-fringe development and who enact restrictions against higher densities.

The problem is not that suburban land use policies don’t work – they worked spectacularly. The problem is that suburbia doesn’t work.

That’s why California enacted SB 375, the most significant anti-sprawl legislation in the country. Finley might like to know, though, that SB 375 operates on an incentive system; it has no power to actually restrict sprawl in places where cities want to permit it. She might further like to know that SB 375 wasn’t adopted until 2008 and has scarcely been implemented. 

Land restrictions became common in high-income enclaves during the 1970s—coinciding with the burgeoning of California's real-estate bubble—and have increased income-based segregation and inequality.

Al Joad, hit the brakes.

OK, so at least we know we’re not talking about SB 375.  (Finley could have at least cited the nominally liberal law CEQA -- assuming that she's heard of it -- but then she might have to acknowledge that it was signed by, um, Ronald Reagan.) But by alluding to generic liberal “land restrictions” from the 1970s, Finley makes it sound like conservatives are clamoring to build townhomes and TOD’s while it’s the liberals who are forcing them into outer-ring McMansions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If Finley objects to segregation, income inequality, and almost any other land-use ill you care to name, then she might want to consider, oh, the single most consequential law in the history of California land use: Proposition 13.

Prop. 13 – as conservative a law as there is – has contributed to sprawl in at least two ways. Most directly, it creates incentives for homeowners to stay put; thus impeding the free market and forcing the construction of new homes for, say, young families, on the urban fringe. Perhaps more importantly, it decimates cities' abilities to raise revenue, because it all but freezes revenues in older cities. (Meanwhile, never mind that, by some measures, the entire state is a donor state with respect to federal taxes.)

Under Prop. 13, when people want good schools and other services, they go to new suburbs where, at least for a little while, brand-new houses sold at market rate generate enough tax revenue to support the services they want. At least until inflation and wear-and-tear catch up with those houses, and the next generation of suburbs appear on the horizon—or maybe they go to another state, with better-funded schools. That's the legacy of "conservative" land use policies. Then again, according to many conservatives (such as Robert Bruegemann in Sprawl: A Compact History), this is what we ought to want -- so I'm not sure what Finley is complaining about.

As for the very real problem of “income-based segregation and inequality”: Where in this country, from the hedges of Greenwich to the gates of Plano, do high-income enclaves not enact measures to control land use and restrict in-migration of “undesirable” neighbors? And since when are these enclaves usually liberal?

Remind me what city Wall Street is in?

Housing in California is on average 2.7 times more expensive than in Texas. The median house costs $459 per square foot in San Francisco and $323 in San Jose, but just $84 in Houston, according to chief economist Jed Kolko of the San-Francisco based real-estate firm Trulia.

Finley must have made a hell of a pie after harvesting this data. First, higher housing per square foot doesn’t necessarily equate with higher housing costs. Residents of San Francisco might live just as happily with less space, as do their counterparts in Houston. Even so, San Franciscans pay more because they cities more than they do Houston. They’re nicer. They offer more, higher-paying jobs. Yay, right? Right??

Housing in California is cheaper inland than on the coast, but good luck finding a job.

Right. That’s because land use policies that promote sprawl have forced people to live farther and farther from cities, to the point where jobs are inaccessible from many places where the housing is. Alternatively, liberal policies promoting higher density enable lower-income people to live closer to job centers.

 The median home in Fresno costs $95 per square foot, but the unemployment rate is nearly 15%, compared with 6% in Houston.

So, low housing prices are good because homes are affordable or bad because they correlate with weak employment? To say that Finley's logic is circular is an understatement. Her mind is doing donuts in a Walmart parking lot.

California's staggering labor and energy costs…have helped kill hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in California's interior. Note: Those are jobs that traditionally served as entry points to the middle class.

When did California’s "interior,” wherever that is, have “hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs”? Note: pollution causes lung cancer and climate change. 

Comcast announced in the fall that it is moving 1,000 call-center jobs out of California because of the "high cost of doing business." Facebook,eBay and LegalZoom have opened up Texas offices in the past few years, while PayPal, Yelp and Maxwell Technologies have pushed into Phoenix.

So it’s bad that genuine California-bred companies—many of which are shining stars on Dow Jones' ticker that still employ the majority of their workers in California—have become so successful that they can open satellite offices?

Rents are prohibitive, and Sacramento takes 9.3% of every dollar over $49,000—and 13.3% over $1 million—that an individual or small business owner earns.

Finally Finley cites a specific policy, and a liberal-ish one at that. How it relates to land use, I’m not sure.

This rate places California 13th highest among the 50 states (New York is first, Texas is 44th).  It also takes less of that individual’s real estate taxes because of Prop. 13. As for the 13.3% rate for million-dollar earners (one million dollars per year!), that’s the reason that poor people are moving out? If Finley wants poor people to remain in state, shouldn’t California raise the top tax rates and lower them at the bottom so as to ease their burden?

By contrast, small businesses in Texas have been sprouting like bluebonnets in the spring to meet the demands of an expanding population.

Good for Texas. The population is expanding in Bangladesh too. Does that mean that Bangladesh offers a high quality of life or a favorable business climate? If population growth was an ideal economic development strategy, then we’d just ban birth control and cut taxes on liquor. 

More people mean more mouths to feed, bodies to clothe and homes to build.

We’re getting pretty low on Maslow’s Hierarchy, aren't we? Ought states promote only those jobs that involve food, homebuilding, and apparel?  And don’t app developers, farmhands, and actors—i.e. people in every other economic sector—need food, clothing, and shelter too? 

In his State of the State address this year, Gov. Jerry Brown boasted: "We have the inventors, the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists…”

These are the people that Republicans used to call “job-creators." 

Recall, however, that the Okies—poor as they may have been—provided a gigantic pool of labor that fueled California's postwar boom and helped transform the Golden State into the world's eighth-largest economy.

Recall, however, that the Oakies were not mere migrants. They were refugees, forced to move westward under a cloud of misery and poverty.

No matter how dehumanized the Oakies must have felt, you just repeat after me: People are not a commodity. They are not a "pool of labor." They are not automatons to be stored in soulless boxes as night. People are individuals with talents, desires, and free will. I won’t name the political systems that treat them otherwise, but they certainly aren’t capitalism.

 The Democrats who have had firm control of the state during its years of decline would do well to remember that a society's most valuable asset is always its people, regardless of their wealth or clout.

And finally: California residents aren’t “the state’s people.” They’re Americans. They’re free to work, come, and go as they please.

Since few of Finley’s arguments are actually valid, it occurs to me that the Journal’s contempt is for people, companies, and, by extension, places that actually make things. In the Dakotas they pull money out of the ground, and on Wall Street many people make money out of little but spreadsheets and lies. In California—awful, depressed, repressive California—we make spacecraft that go to Mars. We make movies and music. We make iPads and iPhones and every computer-related piece of hardware and software imaginable. We make medical devices, and we devise techniques for which those devices are used. We make food. And, if spreadsheets and financiers wet your whistle, we even have venture capitalists who pay for all that stuff.

What’s great about living in a nation—and having a national economy—is that instead of fomenting petty (and not-so-petty) rivalries, we have the opportunity to complement each other and draw on each other’s strengths. So, if Finley and her ilk want to move to shacks in a god-forsaken corner of Texas, that’s their prerogative. If they want to live in a dynamic, diverse, wealthy, innovative, and, yes, sometimes turbulent place with other people who feel the same—then California’s doors will always be open.

And California’s planners had better plan accordingly.  Fortunately for us--rich, poor, native, and newcomer alike--they already are.

This column has been edited since its original posting.