Economics/Class Relations

California Preening

Joel Kotkin describes California’s high-tech feudalism.

By Joel Kotkin, City-Journal

“We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” declared then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. “Not only can we lead California into the future . . . we can show the nation and the world how to get there.” When a movie star who once played Hercules says so who’s to disagree? The idea of California as a model, of course, precedes the former governor’s tenure. Now the state’s anti-Trump resistance—in its zeal on matters concerning climate, technology, gender, or race—believes that it knows how to create a just, affluent, and enlightened society. “The future depends on us,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at his inauguration. “And we will seize this moment.”

In truth, the Golden State is becoming a semi-feudal kingdom, with the nation’s widest gap between middle and upper incomes—72 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 57 percent—and its highest poverty rate. Roughly half of America’s homeless live in Los Angeles or San Francisco, which now has the highest property crime rate among major cities. California hasn’t yet become a full-scale dystopia, of course, but it’s heading in a troubling direction.

This didn’t have to happen. No place on earth has more going for it than the Golden State. Unlike the East Coast and Midwest, California benefited from comparatively late industrialization, with an economy based less on auto manufacturing and steel than on science-based fields like aerospace, software, and semiconductors. In the mid-twentieth century, the state also gained from the best aspects of progressive rule, culminating in an elite public university system, a massive water system reminiscent of the Roman Empire, and a vast infrastructure network of highways, ports, and bridges. The state was fortunate, too, in drawing people from around the U.S. and the world. The eighteenth-century French traveler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur described the American as “this new man,” and California—innovative, independent, and less bound by tradition or old prejudice—reflected that insight. Though remnants of this California still exist, its population is aging, less mobile, and more pessimistic, and its roads, schools, and universities are in decline.

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