Not that the aforementioned glamour and glory, wealth and wellness aren’t real. But they’re only part of the story—the parts that Governor Gavin, Sergey, Larry, Mark, @Jack, and, down south, Ah-nold, Steven, and the rest of tout-Hollywood want you to see and think about to the exclusion of all else. Yet there are more things on the coast and in the valleys, dear reader, than are dreamt of in their California. Respectfully submitted for your perusal: some of the other relevant features of modern California, not all quite so groovy, but all interrelated and self-reinforcing.
The first and fundamental fact to understand is that California today is seriously overpopulated. The official number is just under forty million, but the real figure is almost certainly higher, as the state has been America’s primary locus of illegal immigration for at least fifty years and illegal aliens are by definition hard to count. No one really knows how many live in California, just as no one really knows how many are in the United States as a whole.
In terms of density, California ranks eleventh of the fifty states, denser than Illinois and even land-poor Hawaii. But this vastly understates the case, because California is really two states: the narrow (maximum fifty-mile wide, and in many places much narrower than that) coastal corridor and everywhere else. Two-thirds of the population cram themselves into the former, which is less than 15 percent of the state’s land area. That California is the second-densest in the nation—behind New Jersey and ahead of tiny Rhode Island. Factor out the long stretch of nearly empty coast from Santa Barbara to Carmel, and Haute California is easily number one. All of the above also assumes that the official forty million population figure is accurate, which it almost certainly is not.
It’s debatable whether the entire state’s natural features could comfortably support—even with sufficient human engineering and ingenuity—a population of forty million or more. I have a native-born friend who insists that, with the right policies and infrastructure, California could easily sustain seventy-five million. Maybe. But that only begs the question: even if it were possible, would it be desirable? Would it be something the people already there would want—would choose for its own sake? This assumes, also, that all those extra people wouldn’t do what the majority of all the other newcomers to California do: flock straight to the already jam-packed coast.
Whatever the answer, the simple fact is that California today absolutely does not have such an infrastructure, nor the policies necessary for sustaining such a large population at anything like California’s formerly world-beating standard of living.
In 2000, former Republican senator Alan Simpson and Democratic Colorado governor Richard Lamm wrote:
We both saw California in the 1950s, when it had 10 million people. It was paradise. But it soon grew to 20 million, is now up to 34 million and is expected to have 50 million people by the year 2010. We have yet to meet a Californian who wants 50 million neighbors.
For all we know, every Californian has that many right now. But even at thirty-five million, the state was already a hard place to live. Again, Simpson and Lamm:
The entire western United States is under tremendous growth pressure, partly from Californians leaving California. The most common reasons for departing are too many people, too much congestion, too much traffic, a lowering of the quality of life. More people have left California since 1990 than actually live in Wyoming. Is that a harbinger for the nation?
Overpopulation is the most transformative and harmful of California’s vast menagerie of problems, not merely because of what it does in and of itself, but how it compounds and exacerbates nearly all of the state’s other problems.
What effect does overpopulation have on housing prices? Suffice it to say, not even the combined geniuses of the Stanford and Berkeley Economics Departments have found a way to repeal the law of supply and demand. More people crammed into the same space increases demand; prices inevitably rise, especially as supply remains flat or grows at a slower pace than population growth. Which, in California, it always does, owing to the ruling class’s unlimited appetite for more immigration combined with punitive state and local regulation that—deliberately— restricts building.
The median home price in California is now just north of $600,000— well more than twice the national average and the highest in the Lower Forty-Eight by far. And that figure is statewide—which is to say, it includes California’s dusty, dingy, depressed, old-and-extractive-economy backwaters. Factor out flyover-California and consider just the coastal enclaves where the celebrated “new economy” operates, and the figure is far, far higher. Then factor in the ratio of average family income to median home price. A financial planning rule of thumb is that your house shouldn’t cost more than two and a half times your annual income. Well, in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, the median home price is ten times the local average yearly wage. Indeed, eight of the ten least affordable housing markets in the nation, and nine of the worst thirteen, are in California. Even in decidedly unhip, unglamorous Fresno—a city so far removed from haute America that, in the 1980s, Hollywood made an entire miniseries to spoof it—the ratio of median home price to income is 5.4, higher than Boston or Miami!
Can’t afford to buy? Sorry, but you probably can’t afford to rent, either—at least not a place in which you can outstretch your arms, or without lots of roommates, and not anywhere near your job (see commute times, below). Los Angeles rents alone rose 65 percent in the 2010s, almost twice the national average and twice the rate of income growth in the region. Don’t even ask about Silicon Valley or San Francisco, the nation’s first and third most expensive markets—Manhattan sneaks in between—where rents are almost double what they were a mere ten years ago, when they were already quite high.
Obviously, with upward of forty million people crammed into the state, folks must manage to live there somehow. The exact nature of that “how” depends on who one is, where one lives, how old one is, what one does, and where one came from. But examination reveals illuminating patterns.
A native son may have a few options. If he’s an only child, or if his parents leave behind enough cash for him to buy out his siblings’ share of the family homestead, he’s got it made (assuming, as ever, that he’s fool enough to want to stay). All he has to do is inherit, first, the house— which mom and dad no doubt bought decades prior, at a price-to-income ratio closer to 2:1—and, second, its Prop 13 assessment, which will guarantee, for life, that his property taxes will be a fraction of his neighbors’. Granted, this means he’s stuck in place. Pop may have bought in 1970 in the very best part of Stockton, but that was a long time ago— well before that city suffered the nation’s highest foreclosure rate following the housing bubble, before its government filed for the (then-) largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before its crime rate soared to second highest in the state (behind always-edgy Oakland), and before its obesity and illiteracy rates plummeted to second and third worst in the nation, respectively.
All this is before you even ask what jobs are available, at what salaries. Hint: there’s not a lot of app development going on in Stockton. The most common employer for native sons and daughters hanging on to California by their fingernails is the government, which pays better, on average, than all but the upper reaches of the private sector (though not nearly well enough to buy a house), offers terrific benefits, and from which you can’t be fired.
For a woman, that typically means teacher. Depending on the demographics of her school, teaching can be a better or worse, safer or more hazardous way to make a living. “Rewarding,” even, maybe—if she simply loves little kids, doesn’t have high expectations, and teaches at a low enough grade that she’s not responsible for ensuring that her charges leave her care having learned anything complicated. For a bright, welleducated, and ambitious young lady excited to teach the more advanced stuff to older kids going places and eager to learn, the dream is to crack into one of the state’s handful of “super zips” that are coterminous with their own independent school district: Palo Alto, Piedmont, Los GatosSaratoga, San Marino, and the like.
But assuming she can even land such a job (the competition is fierce), where’s she going to live? Ideally, she would inherit her house—and tax bill—not in Stockton or Barstow but in one of the aforementioned school districts. But that’s like being born first son of a duke in a country with primogeniture. It does happen—there are dukes, after all—but there’s no way to plan for that or make it happen. And you know from a pretty early age whether you are or aren’t.
So assuming she’s not born a peer, her options are: 1) Become a super-commuter and (for example) take an apartment in Gilroy—the sweet-smelling “Garlic Capital of the World”—fifty-plus miles south and east, to secure that job in Palo Alto. It’ll be a ninety-minute trip each way, at best, and Gilroy isn’t exactly a leafy, bourgeois Eden, but at least when she gets home, she can afford her own place. 2) Get a lot of roommates. Even with (say) four gals in a two-bedroom apartment, Palo Alto may still be out of reach, but Fremont, just across the Bay, isn’t. Granted, living like a coed might eventually get old, and in terms of quality of life, crime, and other metrics, Fremont is barely a click above Gilroy, but it is on the Bay, not in the center of some hot, accursed farming valley, and that alone confers serious psychological benefit. 3) Marry a rich dude, or at least a successful functionary in the New-Blue Economy. This, at least, is partially within her control. And working in a place like Palo Alto means the supply of prospects will be plentiful; as the old saying goes, while the goods may be odd, her odds are good. From what I can observe of Blue America circa 2020, her biggest obstacle will be her own attitude. Are her twenties an extended adolescence, to be spent partying and swiping through Tinder hookups? Or are they for getting serious about finding a husband? But since this dilemma is hardly unique to modern California, let us lower the veil and move on.
One upside our young lady will have over her male peers is that, because immigrant inflow into California never seems to slake—and immigrants have lots of kids (especially relative to the native-born)—the state always needs a lot of teachers.
Not so for those jobs men tend to prefer. The gold standard is firefighter. The pay is great and—so long as you’re not in the midst of battling one of the state’s annual 50,000-acre infernos—the duties are manageable. But precisely because the livin’ is so good, these slots are the hardest to land. Law enforcement jobs are far more numerous, but also significantly less remunerative and more unpleasant—and likely about to become much more so as California hits the accelerator on its soft-on-crime crusade. That leaves a smattering of civil engineering possibilities and, for the short-sleeve dress-shirt set, the bureaucracy.
In terms of where to live, his options will be the same as hers, with the seemingly optimistic difference that, since in today’s America women on average earn more than men, his matrimonial prospects ought to be (economically) brighter. Except that, as demographic data consistently shows, women don’t want to marry men who earn less than they do. So instead of getting together, our teacher and cop will super-commute separately to their dingy one-bedrooms on opposite sides of Gilroy—she to her cats, he to his dogs—and maybe pass one another occasionally in a Safeway aisle, while, if an inheritance is coming, they wait for their parents to die, at which point (jobs permitting) they can move to better digs; or, if one isn’t, shelter in place until it’s time to retire and then bug out to spend their pensions in a lower-cost, lower-tax state; but in either case, dying alone, without (legitimate) progeny.
The adventurous of either sex can try their luck in the private sector. This is dicey—high-risk, potentially high-reward, but nothing like the surefire premium over government work that used to apply. The old tradeoff was: government jobs offer more security to compensate for less money. The new paradigm for the private sector is winner-take-all—and low pay, long hours, and shriveling benefits for everyone else. That’s if you qualify for benefits at all. California oligarchs laud the so-called “gig economy” as a massive expansion of workers’ flexibility and freedom when really the purpose is to avoid paying benefits and skirt labor laws that only apply to full-timers.
The real problem with going private, though, is that—apart from agriculture, retail, and low-end services—that sector barely exists in California outside the coastal corridor. Which means that anyone who wants to take his chances has to live somewhere in or near one of the most expensive housing markets and cost-of-living zones in the entire world. Which, as noted, is not easy to do.
Whether their choice is public or private, pretty soon the few native sons or daughters left in California—especially along the coast—whose roots go back a generation or two will be only children whose parents or grandparents bought a house before Jobs and the Woz founded Apple—and then didn’t sell out to enjoy opulent golden years in Boca. You see, in California, inheritances are dicey. It’s not just siblings who complicate matters; so can mom and dad. The original California Dream was to do what the parents of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson (a.k.a. the Beach Boys) did: leave behind a run-down rental in the snowy, rusting East or Midwest and move West into a detached house with two yards, buy your first car, and enjoy perpetual sunshine. Nobody does that anymore; who can afford to?
Today’s California Dream is more like a societal reverse mortgage: realize in your mid-sixties that, hey, honey, it’s not as big a problem as we feared that our 401(k) is a bit light. All we have to do is sell that San Jose tract house we bought for $62,500 in 1975, and the $1.625 million capital gain—combined with what little we do have in that 401(k), plus Social Security—will easily carry us to our eternal rest on the cruise line of our choice. Sorry, kiddo.
As for newcomers—the poor and decently paid alike—they out of necessity end up packed together like Monterey sardines. Illegal immigrants, who live mostly in barrios and farm towns, cram two or more large extended families into smallish houses built with only one nuclear family in mind. H-1B coder-drones earn enough to afford a quarter of a two-bedroom second-story walk-up with outdoor parking, if not in Palo Alto, then at least in Sunnyvale or San Carlos. Having no kids, no wife, no girlfriend, and no prospects helps.
But a house? Forget it—unless he happens to get, first, a green card and second, hired as employee #6 at a start-up that catches venture capital and tech media attention. If the firm goes public or, more likely, gets acquired by one of the big fish, then maybe—maybe—his equity slice will be enough for the down payment on one of those 1,700-square-foot 1960s ranch-style homes that dot the valley, which a rich-kid (Napa, Woodside, Russian Hill) friend of mine used to deride as “teacher housing.” Which shows his age: no teacher has been able to afford one of those since before my buddy left middle school.
And still, there are more multimillion-dollar homes in California than syringes in the Tenderloin. The median price tops a mil in nearly 30 percent of the state’s neighborhoods. Who owns those places and who’s buying them? First and foremost, of course, the big winners of the tech lottery: those who build the latest multibillion-dollar photo-sharing app, the venture capitalists who fund them, and the college roommates and other grifters who luck into unearned equity stakes. It’s not enough for any of these grandees to have just one California mansion; in addition to the spread in Los Altos Hills, which is just for weekdays, he must also have an Outer Broadway Edwardian for weekends and parties, a place in Pebble (or at any rate somewhere on the water) to unwind, plus one down south for the occasional change of pace.
Second are the other big winners in our financialized economy: bankers, hedgies, private equity mavens, and the like, most—but not all—from out of state. A few techies pick up a Manhattan pied-a-terre but other than that don’t much care to spend their lucre outside California. East Coast moneymen, by contrast, prefer to have at least two Golden State crash pads, usually in resort areas—one for scuba and one for golf. Or something like that.
Third and perhaps most consequential are the foreigners: Russian oligarchs, Gulf oil sheikhs, subcontinental steel magnates, hereditary executives of Europe’s giant multinationals, and above all Chinese kleptocrats. An estimated one in twelve California home purchases go to non-Americans, many of whom view California estates not as getaways but as safe places to park money, which they never or rarely visit. No matter; the effect on prices is the same: ever upward.
Lest ye think this applies only to mansions, know that foreign money is buying property up and down California (less so in the interior, of course)—all cash, sight unseen. A quarter of all home purchases in the state are now unfinanced. The best story I’ve yet heard is a 992-squarefoot Old Palo Alto shoebox, purchased in 1970 for $35,000, selling in 2014 for $3 million to a Chinese techie with no plan to come to the States. Investment or bolt-hole?
Either way, even if an affluent Silicon Valley couple without Facebook options could manage to scrounge together 600 grand for a 20 percent down payment, and earn enough to meet the monthly nut on
$2.4 million, and have enough left over to renovate or rebuild (no selfrespecting tech couple can live in a 992-square-foot shoebox, even if it is in Old Palo Alto), how could they possibly expect a seller to put up with the paperwork and delays of a conventional mortgage when the broker on the phone has a client in Shanghai paying cash?
It’s not just houses, either; foreigners are snapping up a wide range of properties and other assets all over the state. There’s no end to the way in which foreign money makes California more expensive for Californians, and Americans.
Traffic may seem trivial—what’s a little delay in exchange for living in utopia? But more traffic means less productivity, lower quality of life, and higher carbon emissions. Isn’t the left supposed to care about that last one?
They claim to, but their solutions don’t extend beyond the fanciful and impossible: ban cars, ban carbon, build high speed rail to nowhere. The practical result? Californians sit longer in traffic than any other people in the nation, suffer nightmare commute times, and spend a greater portion of their incomes on gas—the price of which averages one and a half to two times higher than anywhere else in America because of state-specific regulation.
Anecdotal but telling: When I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s, I frequently drove back and forth between campus, on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, and my parents’ home on the Central Coast. The trip—most of it through sparsely populated stretches of farmland— took exactly six hours without traffic, and there was never any traffic, even on weekdays. The same trip in the summer of 2019 took nine and a half—on a Sunday. Even I-5 through a completely empty stretch of the Western San Joaquin Valley was bumper-to-bumper, like the southbound 405—the world’s busiest freeway—at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. It had been a while since I’d made the trip, granted, but I’d never seen anything like that before. Estimated population of California, 1995:
~31.5 million. Minimum population of California today? Forty million, and likely higher than that.
Overcrowding increases traffic in the obvious way—more people, more cars, more trips, more congestion—but also in ways not so obvious. First, as seen, it drives up home prices and rents, forcing people to live farther and farther from where they work.
Second, it transforms once-recognizable neighborhoods into foreign enclaves, many monolingual (but not English!) and monocultural (but not American!). Denounce legacy Californians as bigots all you want— and the California Wokerati does, daily—but it’s human nature to prefer to live among one’s own, with some semblance of community or at least familiarity. It is never explained why it’s A-OK—laudable, even—for Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chinese, Hmong, Laotians, Bangladeshis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Chechens, Armenians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Nigerians (the whole world is well-represented in California these days) to create their own exclusive enclaves but absolutely disgraceful for “Anglos” (typically a proxy for “white,” but a more precise meaning might be “culturally American and speaks only English”) to seek any like measure of affinity or commonality. You’re just supposed to know the reason—and, I suppose, in modern, hectoring California, few are left who don’t.
In any case, on top of not being able to afford living anywhere near one’s job, people also move—far—in order to live where they understand the language and feel at home in the culture. One side effect is, again, longer commutes and more traffic.
Those commutes must be endured on roads that were once the marvel of the world but are now potholed, decaying shells of their former glory. The causes of that decay are interrelated. First and most simply, California freeways and highways are handling daily traffic loads about three times greater than their designed carrying capacity. Like anything in the physical world, they strain, crack, and erode with overstress and overuse.
Second, even as California opens its collective arms to an unlimited number of newcomers (at least so long as they’re either foreign serfs or woke urbanites), it refuses all but token gestures toward expanding its infrastructure—especially roads, which are for cars, which burn fuel, which are therefore bad. In elite California opinion—often expounded from behind the wheel of a Tesla—roadbuilding is an evil, retrograde act. The solution is always something else: buses, hybrids, and electrics, maybe? But those require roads; try again!
OK, rail! But the state’s topography isn’t well-suited to rail. Its major population centers are separated by formidable natural barriers. There’s a reason the Transcontinental Railroad terminated in Sacramento, not San Francisco: it was hard enough getting over the Sierras. Through the Delta and across the Bay? Even today, Amtrak only goes to Emeryville. San Francisco to LA? Mountains all the way down, which is why California’s brain trust sited the “high speed rail” intended to connect those two cities—the celebrated “train to nowhere”—in the Central Valley, well away from either. At least it’s flat!
As for Amtrak, if you think the Northeast Regional is bad—dank, slow, late, accident-prone—stay off the rails in California. The evocatively named “Coast Starlight” and “Pacific Surfliner” trains are even more decrepit and breakdown-plagued and, even when they’re running, are frequently twelve hours or more behind schedule—after you’ve already boarded and can’t get off. Regional and intracity systems are little better. BART is beset by system and equipment failures, to which it adds the charming additions of urine-soaked seats, high crime, and raving, mentally ill drug addicts. LA’s subway could be worse—at least it’s relatively new— but if you don’t live along one of its few routes, well, too bad.
Which leaves: mixed developments! Live where you work! Walk or bike! The infeasibility of this, given the California real estate market, has, I think, been sufficiently explained.
Then there’s the power situation. Even more than Haute California wants to be woke, it desperately wants to be “green.” Hence for the same reason it won’t build roads, it also won’t consider expanding any energy source that can actually generate enough juice to charge more than a couple of iPhones. Yes to solar panels and switchgrass; no to oil, natural gas, coal, and—especially—nuclear.
Which is ironic, since carbon-free nuclear is by environmentalists’ own metric the greenest of them all. California built three nuclear power plants at massive expense and has already shut down two of them, with the last expected to go permanently off-line in the mid-2020s. Needless to say, the state has not even tried to replace their generating capacity. Instead, it just imports power—produced, also needless to say, from coal, gas, and uranium—from other states, pushing ugly necessity out beyond California’s sacred borders to red states whose troglodytic inhabitants don’t mind pollution.
The rolling blackouts of the early 2000s felled one governor (Gray Davis). It remains to be seen what the economic and political effects of their return in the late 2010s and early 2020s might be. The causes are somewhat different, though overlapping: a combination of bad policy, decayed infrastructure, and private sector incompetence. That is, if you want to call the state-backed monopoly PG&E “private.”
Whatever your conclusion on that score, California’s obsession with “green” means that that state does its utmost to prevent maintenance and modernization of the electrical grid—power stations, transformers, transmission lines, and the like. This theologically driven shortsightedness already caused the worst wildfire in American history (which in 2018 destroyed an entire town—ironically named “Paradise”). To prevent a recurrence, the geniuses who run and regulate PG&E could think of only one solution: when the humidity’s low and the winds high, turn off the lights in huge swaths of the state. Which they do, sometimes with a courteous six or even twelve hours’ notice, at other times just like that, right in the middle of dinner. But never, it should go without saying, in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, or Downtown Sacramento—whose functionaries at the California Franchise Tax Board (the state equivalent of the IRS) well know where the butter for their bread is churned.
Modern California’s theological refusal to consider building anything new (or at least anything new that’s not utterly utopian and unrealizable) in part serves as a mask for the uncomfortable fact that modern California is incapable of building anything new. Certainly not on time or on budget.
The state’s most recent big project may prove to be its last. In 1989, an earthquake damaged the eastern span (there are two, separated by Yerba Buena Island) of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. It was quickly repaired (that was then), but state engineers also concluded that the span would have to be replaced: another, larger earthquake could bring the whole thing down.
Initial estimate? $250 million. Originally scheduled opening? 2007. Actual cost? $6.5 billion (!), an overrun of 2,500 percent (!!). Actual opening day? Labor Day, 2013—a mere six years late. And the full story is even worse than that sounds. It took longer—five years—just to navigate the lawsuits, political bickering and regulatory hurdles for the new, partial bridge than it took—less than four—to site, plan, design, and build the whole thing in the 1930s. Even worse: the original bridge—both spans—cost one-sixth, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the price tag of the single new span. Worse still: the steel for the new span was made in China. The bolts are already rusting.
And this is the state that thought it could build a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
No wonder California has lost its appetite for building real, necessary structures and prefers instead to fantasize about space-age trains to nowhere. As historian and native Californian Victor Davis Hanson lamented of his birthplace and home, “[S]ocieties in decline fixate on impossible postmodern dreams as a way of disguising their inability to address premodern problems.”
There are very few premodern problems that modern California is capable of addressing—which is unfortunate, because it has a lot of them. Allow me, for a moment, to turn the narrative over to the great Tom Wolfe:
In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the hippie movement. At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they had now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious fevers of all time.
The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. . . . Among the codes and restraints [they] swept aside—quite purposefully—were those that said that you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all, or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning . . . the laws of hygiene by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.
Wolfe entitled the essay where this passage occurs “The Great Relearning,” evoking the hopeful note that a lesson once relearned will not soon again be forgotten. Alas, poor California!
Less than a half-century later, the Golden State can only wish its biggest public health problems were the mange and the grunge. Instead, huge swaths of San Francisco and Los Angeles—two of the richest cities in the history of the world—contend with public urination and defecation at levels exceeding the worst slums of Calcutta. And which, combined with rampant rat infestations, give rise to diseases that definitely do have names, though not necessarily in Latin: cholera, hepatitis A, typhus, and the Bubonic Plague, the “Black Death,” which killed a third of Europe in the fourteenth century.
The state and its local governments have proven powerless or unwilling to do anything about this. Some of that arises from (again) theological refusal. For example, the elected San Francisco County district attorney Chesa Boudin—biological son of two New Left terrorists, adopted son of two others—announced, several years into the city’s ever-worsening “defecation crisis,” that his office will not prosecute any “quality-of-life crimes,” including public pooping.
But one does not get the sense that, even in the event of theological conversion, California could muster the wherewithal to clean up or demand that its residents use toilets. The will is just not there, and even if it were, the know-how—the civic muscle memory—to perform basic tasks such as sanitation has atrophied from sustained disuse. Legendary New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously said of municipal politics that “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.” In California, Republicans are irrelevant (and in SF and LA, nonexistent) and the Democrats either don’t know how or don’t care. An odd stance for a state that all but invented the modern environmental movement. But when upscale preferences collide with downscale bad habits, the latter always trump—at least until and unless they don’t intrude too far into Haute California. So long as they don’t, the “privileged” must never “punch down.”
Who could have predicted, in the halcyon days of Governors Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan—when so much of the state’s magnificent infrastructure was built and its reputation as paradise for the common man definitively established—that by 2020 you could replace the old joke about bears crapping in the woods with “Californians” and “streets” and not have to change the punch line? Yet headlines such as “Fecal Bacteria in California’s Waterways Increases with Homeless Crisis” are enough to show that something fundamental has changed. You don’t even have to read the article to know they aren’t talking about fish.
As a tidal wave of crime engulfed America following various 1960s liberal “reforms,” California never sank to Taxi Driver–levels of menace and depravity. Los Angeles was hit hard by the crack epidemic and ensuing turf wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and parts remain wracked by Central American gangs, but mostly the state has been spared the worst. That is, until recently.
One of the factors that long kept Californians (relatively) safe was the political class’s bipartisan aggressiveness against crime. Democrat Gray Davis may have been the most anti-crime California governor ever—and that’s saying something. Appointed police chiefs no less than elected sheriffs and district attorneys long shared a firm commitment to law and order.
Not anymore. Electoral pressures are softening mayors’ attitudes toward policing. Soros money is electing left-wing, let-’em-go DAs all over the state. Via referenda, voters recently repealed some of the state’s tougher laws and decriminalized theft under $950.
The results? Violent crime immediately spiked—by 12 percent between 2013 and 2017 alone—and is still going up. It’s not just in the big cities, either. California’s once-bucolic rural areas have seen crime surges as well. Victor Davis Hanson reports that his rural neighbors believe three-fourths of the crime in their communities goes unreported because residents assume, from experience, that the police won’t even try to bring perps to justice or recover stolen goods.
Big-ticket criminal law still nominally applies to all (though it’s worth noting that clearance rates for homicides in non-white communities—especially in Los Angeles County—are rock-bottom). But one wonders how long even that will last. Boudin, perhaps the most pro-criminal DA in the nation, favors babying the violent with so-called “restorative justice.” After two young men assaulted an elderly man who was collecting cans to recycle, the SFPD did its job and arrested the assailants. The DA, though, declined to press charges. It’s unclear what, exactly, “restorative justice” entails. It’s easier to say what it’s not: punishment or deterrence.
But property crime? California cops have all but given up. San Francisco now has the highest property crime rate in the nation. A friend tells of reporting—by phone; cops no longer visit crime scenes without dead bodies—a break-in to the SFPD. To his plaintive plea, “Do you think you’re going to catch the guys?” the detective responded, “Do ya think we’re gonna look?” Across the Bay in Berkeley, a food deliverer was caught on video stealing all the accumulated Christmas presents from the lobby of a building where she had just made a delivery. She was easily identified, but the Alameda County district attorney refused even to issue a citation; property crime in California is now effectively legal.
The situation would appear poised to get a lot worse before it gets better (if it ever does). On his second day in office, that new San Francisco DA fired his seven most-experienced prosecutors—because they were too good at their jobs. Which, as he has redefined, is no longer to convict criminals but to further “social justice.” Similar stories can be told throughout the state, anywhere Bloomberg–Soros–Steyer money floods in to determine local elections, which is everywhere.
Since the real cops won’t do anything—to be fair, in many cases not because they don’t want to but because they’ve been ordered not to— people with means in the tonier parts of the state have started paying private security forces. Granted, there’s not a whole lot rent-a-cops can do; they aren’t sworn peace officers and so can’t arrest anyone, and even if they could, the courts would just instantly turn the offenders back onto the streets anyway. Which is what they do when the real cops bring them criminals. But at least private security can keep a watchful eye and deter some of the worst mayhem.
Californians pay dearly for all this indifference and incompetence: the nation’s highest income, sales, and gas taxes, and one of its highest overall state tax burdens. Only Prop 13—which limits property tax increases to prevent Sacramento’s greed from driving people from their homes—saves the state from being number one.
The state also leads the nation in special “excise” taxes on disfavored products, especially cigarettes and gasoline. Smokers are, of course, a despised minority nationwide—didn’t they vote for Trump?—but nearly everyone drives, even liberals. In California—despite its elites’ fondest wishes—you have no choice. And the state takes pains to make you pay extra for the privilege. Nothing personal against you, just against the auto and oil industries, which California will find a way to get rid of any day now. That, and to fund all its very-expensive-yet-still-lousy services, the state really needs your money.
It wasn’t always this way. Competent, growing, thriving mid-century California enjoyed a moderate tax burden—neither the nation’s lowest nor highest but somewhere in the middle—and still managed to build most or all of the roads, airports, dams, canals, and power plants that Californians still (over)use today.
But as the state’s ambitions soared, its “need” for cash soared right alongside. The middle and especially professional classes who remain pay half or more of their income in taxes, only to be called greedy for not being eager to pay more. The state already suffers from the highest out-migration rate of any in the nation, yet its political class can’t stop working to make things worse. It’s almost as if they’re deliberately engineering policy to encourage undesirables—wrong-thinkers and the retrograde—to leave, the way Mayors James Michael Curley chased Yankees out of Boston and Coleman Young whites out of Detroit.
One might object that this can’t possibly be the plan because even California’s dullard leaders must know that, without a tax-paying middle and upper-middle class, the state will quickly go broke. But don’t assume that they’ve thought things through or that—if they have—they prioritize fiscal sanity over tribal and class warfare.
As evidence that they don’t, we may point to two growing movements. First is the push to restore the state’s punishing inheritance tax, which—if successful—will drive scads of productive Californians and their children away.
The second, and potentially far more consequential, is the hunger to repeal Prop 13. The strategy is already obvious: first, repeal the limits for commercial property by denouncing them as a form of “corporate welfare” while disingenuously implying that the provisions protecting homes are sacrosanct. Then once the camel’s nose is under the tent, wait for the next “budget emergency”—those happen a lot in California—and repeal the rest. As soon as it becomes clear that’s a serious possibility, astute California homeowners will sell before their tenfold tax hike (temporarily) craters the value of their property. Those who miss the window will sell out of necessity, at whatever price they can get. Those “legacy” Californians discussed above, counting on inheriting a home and its Prop 13 assessment? They’ll scoot—along with their incomes, assets, and skills. Within a few years, nobody born in—or who even remembers—the old, American California will be left.
Then what happens to all the houses? One strong possibility is that the California landscape will be even more dotted with foreign-owned properties that nobody but the landscapers ever visit—the same way that slender towers with one giant apartment per floor continue to proliferate in Manhattan and Miami. Not for anyone to live in, but so that shady foreigners can launder money and shield assets. The state government not only won’t care, it will be delighted to replace native Californians— whom it denigrates as deadbeats—with owners who can actually afford the new-and-improved property tax bills.
But that solution only works for Haute California. What happens to all the “teacher housing” in the state’s dry, dusty parts once the old occupants scoot? Are stoop-labor wages somehow going to climb high enough to make post–Prop 13 California property taxes affordable?
Finally, Californians and Californiaphiles alike love to brag that the state boasts the finest public university system in the world. Which, I suppose, it does, if one ignores quality of instruction and measures only by reputation and prestige (and, to be fair, the University of California system still does important work in the hard sciences). Supposedly that system exists to serve the citizens of the state: the parents who pay the taxes that subsidize the campuses, and their kids who might, in an alternate universe, grow up to become productive Californians. And on one level, that’s true; in-state tuition is still about half what outsiders pay.
But the system gets around that by aggressively recruiting out-of-staters—and especially foreigners—who pay full freight. In the 2019– 2020 academic year, twenty-seven thousand students from China alone were enrolled at the UC System. Every slot at Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, or Irvine taken by a kid from Shenzhen or Mumbai is one that can’t go to a kid from Fullerton or Fairfield. The president of the system, the regents, and the chancellors don’t care; they’d rather have the money than serve their state.
As fast as the state vacuums up money, it spends it even faster. The last state budget clocked in at $214 billion—well over four times what it was just thirty years ago, when the state’s population was three-quarters what it is today. Inflation accounts for less than a third of the increase. Sacramento just loves shoveling money out the door: per capita spending has nearly tripled since 1990. From 2010 to 2020 alone, spending shot up 70 percent—ten times the rate of population growth over the same period.
In terms of per capita state debt and unfunded liabilities, California’s state government currently ranks, respectively, third and second worst in the nation—not nearly as bad as New Jersey or Illinois, which are about as solvent as the USSR circa 1985, but broke is broke.
That doesn’t stop Sacramento from spending or the voters from green-lighting more debt on trains to nowhere. Actually, in March 2020 Californians did, for the first time in twenty-six years, reject a bond initiative. Perhaps they’ve noticed how deep they are in the red?
Well, if they didn’t know before, they know now. Governor Gavin Newsom—a suit so empty, a hot-air balloon has more substance—in mid-2020 announced that the state is facing a $54 billion one-year gap. Some red states are hurting, too—shutting down the economy for months will do that—but none that bad. That’s because of California’s ridiculous fiscal policy, which guarantees massive shortfalls every time there’s an economic slowdown. The state budget relies overwhelmingly on income tax revenue—and overwhelmingly on a tiny number of the very highest earners. In 2017, an estimated fifteen thousand households—in a state whose population is supposed to be forty million—paid 46 percent of all state income tax. About once a decade, like clockwork—except that you never know the precise time the gong will strike—the American and/ or state economy goes into recession and state revenues crash. It’s the silliest and most childish fiscal regime outside the Third World. And everyone knows it. And no one does anything about it.
In a sense, California remains a land where hope springs eternal. Despite being unable to perform such basic tasks as persuading people to relieve themselves into toilets, the state’s political class still believes it can legislate or regulate away any and all problems. Hence California imposes the worst regulatory burden in the nation and is America’s undisputed leader in pushing loads of business-killing policies at the behest of radical activists.
With a few exceptions, what California really hates is building things—development. The Apple spaceship in Cupertino is cool; and what’s one more glass tower on Rincon Hill? But middle-class housing?
That’s bad for the environment! (And might, you know, cause prices to go down, which would be bad for current owners.) Hence, anything that touches or might affect the environment is regulated to near-, and often actual, death. California is famous for blocking or stopping building projects in the name of insect species not hitherto known to biology. Some of this intransigence arises from genuine conviction—there are a lot of sincere environmentalists in the state—but much is driven by NIMBY (not in my backyard) or BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) cynicism that manipulates the rules for private ends.
California’s environmentalism is shot through with double standards. God forbid an oil or gas company disrupt the migratory path of a single California quail; executives will be besieged by state apparatchiks and lawyers, while their shareholders foot the enormous bill to “get back into compliance.” But wind turbines can slaughter birds by the tens of thousands and . . . nothing. Wind is “green,” you see.
California also goes out of its way to “protect” workers—of a certain type. Those in disfavored, old-economy industries are tied up like rodeo calves in a tangle of rules ostensibly written for their benefit. But one wonders how much such workers actually benefit when their employers are so overburdened by compliance costs that they can’t afford to give raises, much less expand or hire anyone new. California has the highest workers’ comp costs in the nation—nearly twice the national average—yet another factor pushing businesses, and the people who own and run them, out of the state. It’s hard not to conclude that this, too, is deliberate. California’s message to its boring legacy economy is the same as that for its boring legacy citizens: Just Leave.
Turn to the tech sector and suddenly California’s regulatory behemoth becomes obsequiously employer-friendly. Google can fire James Damore for defending his (then-) employer’s hiring practices, and the state will not lift a finger to help him or rebuke Google. Tech companies matter in ways that old boring stuff just doesn’t. They either aren’t targeted with regulation in the first place or, if they are, they lobby for, and get, exceptions and carve-outs. If that fails, the favored few just ignore the rules that might harm the bottom line, confident the state won’t come after them. Because it never does.
That’s barely the half of it, though. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and intensifying in the mid-1960s, elites inside and outside government—state and federal—have centralized authority in a “fourth branch,” the executive branch’s agencies and bureaucracies. Those institutions, the people in them, and their governing philosophy and methods have come to be known as “the administrative state.” Administrative state rule is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-constitutional, intended to be rule by “expert consensus.” (We will have much more to say about this phenomenon in the following chapter.)
Nowhere in America is the process of administrative state consolidation more advanced than modern California. The state has a legislature, but one wonders why since nearly everything important is decided by unelected bureaucrats, boards, and commissions. (Actually, I do know why: to provide jobs for Democratic politicians.) There’s nothing remotely small-d “democratic” about modern California, since statewide elections have only one outcome—the left always wins—and voting changes nothing.
So long as policy always continues to move in the correct, leftward direction—and it always does—elected officials are mostly content to enjoy the perks of office. The idea of serving constituents—that a citizen could go to his assemblywoman for help against a Coastal Commission trying to fine his family into bankruptcy for building a fence—is laughable, a fact which no one knows better than said assemblywoman.
The bureaucrats, though, are deadly earnest and defied at one’s peril. Concepts such as the separation of powers and double jeopardy don’t apply. Administrative state apparatchiks act as cops, prosecutors, and judges—all in the same action. They can come after you over anything, as often as they want for as long as they want. You can try your luck in the courts, but before you write your lawyer a retainer check, know well that in one-party California, the ruling class sticks together.
In modern California, hypocrisy and double-standardism aren’t merely part of the business climate; they’re endemic to the whole society. Former Heritage Foundation scholar and Washington Times writer Sam Francis dubbed this system “anarcho-tyranny”: complete freedom—even exemption from the gravest laws—for the favored, maximum vindictive enforcement against the pettiest infractions on the disfavored.
Just like regulations, only worse, civil and criminal laws are enforced spectacularly unequally. As long ago as 2002, Victor Davis Hanson—in his prophetic but unheeded book Mexifornia—observed that a great deal of California state law simply does not, as a practical matter, apply to immigrants, especially illegals. State officials long ago gave up trying to enforce the law evenly—bureaucrats in the belief that enforcement is unfair to the “disadvantaged,” peace officers from the knowledge that there is no point. Illegals don’t pay their fines or show up for court dates, and no one tries to see that they do.
But the native-born middle class? Try building an unpermitted addition to your house or evading the requirement to buy auto insurance; the state will crush you. By contrast, illegals on the road are never insured and never face any consequences. If you’re struck by one and are naïve enough to call the California Highway Patrol in the belief that it will make a difference, you will, for your trouble, simply watch as the “motorist,” uninsured and likely unlicensed, is handed a bench warrant that officer and offender alike know will never be honored. That’s assuming the driver waits around for the cop to show—a foolish assumption.
This arrangement partly arises for Willie Sutton reasons: the state predatorily targets its middle class with fines because that’s where the money is. It also knows that the middle class can be counted on to pay: both parties to the transaction are well aware of the punishment the state metes out to citizen-scofflaws.
The other motive for the double standard is ideological zeal, a fact that snaps into focus during California’s not-infrequent eruptions of left-wing violence. When a conservative speaker tries to come to Berkeley, for instance, you can expect Antifa to show up in force and beat people— and the cops will either do nothing or make desultory arrests that the courts shrug off. After community college adjunct philosophy professor Eric Clanton walloped three people on the head with a five-pound iron bike lock, Alameda County let him go with probation. When Donald Trump campaigned in San Jose in the run-up to the 2016 California primary, his supporters were openly beaten by thugs, all while police stood by and watched.
In modern California, justice ain’t blind; she has 20/20 vision—which she uses to tell the good guys from the bad and exempt the former and stick it to the latter. One could be forgiven for concluding that this, too, is part of an overarching strategy to convince the “wrong” Californians to move out.
What California cannot accomplish through regulation and two-track enforcement it attempts to impose via stultifying conformity, backed up by public humiliation and ostracism for those who don’t fall in line. California may not be the birthplace of every silly and destructive leftist fad in the nation (Oberlin and its ilk deserve a little credit), but it’s at least the origin of most. And the ones it doesn’t invent, it quickly embraces with the zeal of Torquemada.
Use the “wrong” pronoun? (With apologies to Donald Trump), you’re fired! Object to your eleven-year-old daughter’s sharing a changing room with a fifty-five-year-old “woman” who realized just last month he’d always been a girl on the inside? Canceled!
The climate of opinion—at least in Haute California—amounts to medieval piety without God and with similar ferocity against heretics. Some California obsessions are merely trivial, and some possibly even helpful if pursued in a more moderate way. For instance, the world is not made better by plastic bags and is probably marginally improved by their absence. But California’s jihad against the offending vessels, and especially against those who refuse to affirm the fullness of their evil, is well out of proportion to any actual harm.
More sinister is the insistence that you deny reality—for example, affirm that a man is really a woman—or profess things you don’t actually believe: say, that the world will end in twelve years “because of climate change.” As with all cases of religious intolerance, outward conformity is an unsatisfactory defense; the inquisitors must be satisfied that, in your heart, you really believe. Hence insufficient fervor for elite California’s latest enthusiasm is taken as sufficient proof of heresy.
There is no political or cultural check on any of this. Millions of Californians may disagree on this or that point and even resent being bullied, but there’s no way to know because they never dare say so—not if they want to stay and continue to earn a living.
Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College. A former national security official in the Trump administration, he is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is the author of "The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return" (Regnery Publishing, 2020).