Only a fool, or perhaps a politician or media pundit, would say California is not in trouble, despite some modest recent improvements in employment and a decline in migration out of the state. Yet the patient, if still very sick, is curable, if the right medicine is taken, followed by the proper change in lifestyle regimen.
The first thing necessary: Identify the root cause of California’s maladies. The biggest challenge facing our state is not climate change, or immigration, corporate greed, globalization or even corruption. It’s the demise of upward mobility for the vast majority of Californians, and the rise of an increasingly class-ridden, bifurcated society.
California’s class problem spills into virtually every aspect of our malaise. It is reflected in both the nation’s highest poverty rate, above 23 percent, and a leviathan welfare state; California, with roughly 12 percent of the population, now accounts for roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients. This burgeoning underclass exacerbates the demand for public services, deprives the state of potential taxpayers and puts enormous pressure on the private sector middle-class to come up with revenue.
So, California, which once might have been an engine of the US economy, is now the busted muffler shooting out sparks as it drags along the pavement.
Can it be fixed?
Essentially, there is only one practical solution to this dilemma: a program that promotes economic growth. This strategy would transcend the recent reliance on asset-based bubbles that have boosted property markets and technology stocks. Another bubble, whether an investor-driven spike in property values in Newport Beach or a stock mania in Silicon Valley, may provide a temporary boost in revenue but will do very little to improve employment for the vast majority or to stabilize long-term finances.
Other proposed bromides, like Gov. Jerry Brown’s promised 500,000 “green jobs,” need to be dismissed for what they are – stories we tell our children so they will fall asleep. High-speed rail, another modern-day Moonbeam program, is seen, even by many progressives, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, as an “ever more ridiculous” boondoggle based on “jaw-droppingly shameless” assumptions.
Instead of delusion, California needs policies that can boost economic growth in precisely those areas – construction, agriculture, manufacturing and energy – with the best prospects for creating good, high-paying jobs for both blue- and white-collar Californians. Yet, right now the Legislature and, even more so, the empowered state apparat, seem determined to do everything they can to strangle an incipient recovery in these industries.
Government can play a critical, even determinative, role here. But it needs to shift priorities from redistribution and wealth suppression to providing the basic infrastructure essential for a growth economy. It means transforming our education system from a jobs and pension program for public sector workers and corporate rent-seekers to a focus on providing our economy with the skills – including those used in basic industries – needed for a revived California. It means spending money on the kind of infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, roads, urban bus lines, water and energy systems, that can spur growth instead of misallocations such as high-speed rail and subsidized green energy boondoggles.
This back-to-basics approach could restore California’s aspirational promise, and not only for a favored few in a handful of favored places, but for the majority of our people, from the mountains to the sea.
That would be a no.
It’s bad enough that California has become the Somalia of America; what’s worse is that America has become the Somalia of the Americas.