What do San Francisco, San Mateo, and Berkeley have in common with Jackson, Miss.; Lake Charles, La.; and St. Louis, Mo., have in common?

Basically nothing, right?

Unfortunately for everyone involved, all six cities are on a recently published list of the "18 Fastest-Declining Cities in the U.S." They are accompanied by Monterey Park, South San Francisco, Daly City, and four other California cities, meaning that California cities comprise more than half of the list. San Francisco took the "top" spot for the most rapidly declining city.

As you may already have guessed, this report is not exactly scientific. For one thing, it was published by a site called "Insider Monkey." More importantly, it relied on just one metric (population decline) and a brief, anomalous time period (2020-2022). Silly as this ranking may be, it should give Californians pause.

"Rapid decline" connotes all sorts of urban destitution. You'd think someone shut down our factories, set our rivers on fire, boarded up our businesses. These are the hallmarks of legacy cities where work has disappeared or where structural inequities have been impossible to shake. These misfortunes explain, in part, why residents leave the St. Louises and Jacksons of the world.

The California specimens -- as well as New York City, which ranked No. 2 -- tell a far different story.

Broadly, it's true that California has lost population in recent years. The glib reasons are the pandemic and housing prices. Those reasons are valid, but they're also nebulous. They don’t stir the emotions the way a factory closure might. And so many Californians plod along, oblivious to, or even gleeful about, the state’s population decline. I'd like to think, though, that the ignominy of being called out by something with "Monkey" in its name would lead to some soul-searching.

The cities that "declined" in previous generations arguably did so through little fault of their own. The Toledos, Clevelands, and Buffalos of the world were subject to global macroeconomic trends, such as overseas manufacturing.

California's decline, though, is very much self-inflicted.

The 750,000 or so people who left the state in 2020 didn't necessary leave behind blighted, vacant homes. They were probably renting in the first place. Many of them are leaving because they have, or want to have, children. (Causing, as well, an invisible brain drain that will set in 20 or so years from now.) These young adults who are leaving behind mom and dad, to rattle around half-empty houses where they might have raised two or three kids. These empty-nesters have more than enough equity to keep the lawn mowed and the paint fresh. From curbside, California looks as idyllic as ever when, in fact, their neighborhoods have shrunk. 

A recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the average homeowner tenure in San Diego has doubled since 2005, from seven years to fourteen. Household size has declined by 9%, 7.5%, and 5% in Los Angeles County, Orange County, and the Inland Empire, respectively. Some young adults might want to buck this trend by living in the literal houses where they grew up, except, thanks to Prop. 13, their parents are essentially imprisoned in homes with low tax bases.

Insider Monkey's listicle belies a greater tragedy about the American economy. It's one thing if, say, a middle-income couple moves from a rental in Daly City to a starter home in Reno. They’re moving up in the world, albeit it a few hundred miles away. It's another matter entirely if someone desperately wants to trade Toledo, Detroit, or, Jackson for better job prospects in a Los Angeles or San Jose--but is barred by unaffordable rents. That's what economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes in a piece published just a few weeks ago:

Technology... has made America as a whole richer, but it has reduced economic opportunities in rural areas. So why don’t rural workers go where the jobs are? Some have. But some cities have become unaffordable, in part because of restrictive zoning — one thing blue states get wrong — while many workers are also reluctant to leave their families and communities.

His point is that we can't necessarily reverse the economic decline of rural areas (or of legacy cities, for that matter). But, intra-national migration could rebalance the economic scales, matching eager workers with opportunities, if suitable homes were available. That's exactly what happened in California for a good half-century. The economy boomed, the population grew, and the rest is history. Today, California's restrictive zoning hurts the state and, according to Krugman, the entire nation alike.

California's "decline" is not a function of a lack of prosperity. It is because of prosperity. More specifically, it's due to our inability to manage our prosperity.

The trouble with prosperity is that the people who benefitted most from it in the past are often least likely to promote -- or even tolerate -- it in the present. If your screenplay, search engine, or pistachio orchard has already paid for your house and your retirement fund, what do you care about the people who were born too late? 

Planners have devised plenty of policy solutions to reverse this "decline." They've being implemented as we speak, through new housing elements, some California Environmental Quality Act reforms, density incentives, and whatnot. Even so, those are half-measures. A little enthusiasm wouldn't hurt. A state that once was the epitome of optimism has grown dour. Californians -- mostly the wealthy ones -- have lost their sense of state pride. That's how a word like "decline" gets so easily attached to us.

Californians should be embarrassed by it. We should be outraged.

I'm aware of the hazards of referring to the nonspecific "we." But, one trait the vast majority of Californians share is that we live here by choice. We need to get excited about our state -- its economy, landscape, people, values, and everything else -- and get excited about allowing other people to participate in our prosperity. That starts with providing them with proper places to live, afford other people the choice of living here.

Maybe Insider Monkey is the enemy we didn’t know we needed.

Obviously, being accused of “decline” is no fun. It’s a blow to the collective ego. The difference between California and, sadly, many other states is that our decline is taking place by choice. We’re also choosing to adopted polices to build more housing and reverse population loss. Much of that work has already been done. Planners who have drafted new housing elements and legislators who have sponsored new laws can, and should, now add some cheerleading to their repertoire.

All the regulations in the world aren’t going to create demand and aren’t going to create excitement for new development. If we can reframe population loss as “decline – and, conversely, frame population gain as prosperity – some of those slow-growth sentiments might recede. California’s future depends on attitude as much as on demographics or economics.

If that doesn't happen, and people keep leaving, I can think of at least a few cities that would be overjoyed to welcome them. The average home price in Jackson is $115,000.