Barack Obama learned the rough sport of politics in Chicago, but his domestic policies have been shaped by California’s progressive creed. As the Golden State crumbles, its troubles point to those America may confront in a second Obama term.
From his first days in office, the president has held up California as a model state. In 2009, he praised its green-tinged energy policies as a blueprint for the nation. He staffed his administration with Californians like Energy Secretary Steve Chu—an open advocate of high energy prices who’s lavished government funding on “green” dodos like solar-panel maker Solyndra, and luxury electric carmaker Fisker—and Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who thrived as CEO of a regulated utility which raised energy costs for millions of consumers, sometimes to finance “green” ideals.
Obama regularly asserts that green jobs will play a crucial role in the future of the American economy, but California, a trend-setter in the field, has yet to reap such benefits. Green jobs, broadly defined, make up only about 2 percent of jobs in the state—about the same proportion as in Texas. In Silicon Valley, the number of green jobs actually declined between 2003 and 2010. Meanwhile, California’s unemployment rate of 10.9 percent is the nation’s third highest, behind only Nevada and Rhode Island.
When Governor Jerry Brown predicted a half-million green jobs by the end of the decade, even The New York Times deemed it “a pipe dream.”
Obama’s push to nationalize many of California’s economy-stifling green policies has been slowed down, first by the Republican resurgence in 2010 and then by his reelection considerations. But California’s politicians, living in what’s become essentially a one-party state, have doubled down on green orthodoxy. As the president at least tries to cover his flank by claiming to support an “all-in” energy policy, California has simply refused to exploit much of its massive oil and gas resources.
Does this matter? Well, Texas has created 200,000 oil and gas jobs over the past decade; California has barely added 20,000. The state’s remaining energy producers have been slowing down as the regulatory environment becomes ever more hostile even as producers elsewhere, including in rustbelt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, ramp up. The oil and gas jobs the Golden State political class shuns pay around $100,000 a year on average.
Instead, California has forged ahead with ever-more extreme renewable energy mandates that have resulted in energy costs roughly 50 percent above the national average and expected to rise substantially from there. This tends to drive out manufacturing and other largely blue-collar energy users.
Over the past decade the Golden State has grown its middle-skilled jobs (those that require two years or more of post-secondary education) by a mere 2 percent compared to a 5.3 percent increase nationwide, and almost 15 percent in Texas. Even in the science-technology-engineering and mathematics field, where California has long been a national leader, the state has lost its edge, growing just 1.7 percent over the past 10 years compared to 5.4 percent nationally and 14 percent in Texas.
A recent Public Policy of California study shows that since the recession, the gap between rich and poor has widened more in California than in the rest of the nation. Lower-income workers have seen their wages drop more precipitously than those of the affluent. And the middle class is proportionately smaller and has shrunk more than elsewhere. Adjusted for cost of living, it stands at 47.9 percent in California compared to nearly 55 percent for the rest of the country.
Meantime, many Californians have been departing for more affordable states, with a net loss of four million residents to other states over the past 20 years (while continuing, of course, to attract immigrants.) Of those who remain, nearly two-in-five Californians pay no income tax, and one in four receive Medicaid.
There are some people are prospering in California, including many of the affluent supporters who Obama courts on his frequent fundraising forays here. Tenure-protected academics from the University of California constitute his third-largest donor base, while Google ranks fifth and Stanford twelfth, according to Open Secrets.
Silicon Valley may emerge as the biggest source of campaign cash for Obama and the Democrats in the years ahead. After losing 18 percent of its jobs earlier in the decade, the Valley has resurged, along with Wall Street, aided by the cheap-money-for-the-rich policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. But while California’s high-tech job growth, largely in software, has been significant, the rate of increase has been less than half that of key competitors such as Utah, Washington, and Michigan.
The IPO-lottery, Hollywood, and inherited-wealth crowds can afford the state’s sky-high costs, especially along the coast, but most California businesses can’t. Under Brown and his even less well-informed predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the official mantra has been that the state’s “creative” entrepreneurs would trigger a state revival. This is very much the hope of the administration, which trots out companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google as exemplars of the American future. “No part of America better represents America than here,” the president told a crowd at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View last fall.
Yet Silicon Valley represents just a relatively small part of the state’s economic base. Although the Valley—particularly the Cupertino to San Francisco strip—has recovered from the 2008 market meltdown, unemployment in the blue-collar city of San Jose hovers around 10 percent. The Oakland area, just across the Bay, ranked 63rd out of 65 major metropolitan in terms of employment trends, trailing even Detroit according to a recent analysis done by Pepperdine University economist Michael Shires. Other major California metros, including Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside-San Bernardino, and Sacramento all ranked near the bottom.
The newer companies that can afford the sky-high costs of coastal California, and can pay their employees adequately to do the same—places like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter—employ relatively few people compared to older, manufacturing-oriented technology firms such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel. While cherry picking highly educated professionals, the new firms create few local support positions that would spread some of the wealth. What middle-income jobs they do create tend to be located in lower-cost, more business-friendly American cities like Salt Lake City or Austin, or, increasingly, overseas.
Elite institutions like Stanford still thrive, but the state’s once-great educational system is creaking under reduced funding, massive bureaucracy, and skyrocketing pensions. Once among the best-educated Americans, Californians are rapidly becoming less so. Among people over 64, California stands second in percentage of people with an associate degree or higher; among those aged 25 to 34, it ranks 30th.
For devoted Californians, accustomed to seeing their state as a national and global exemplar, these trends are deeply disturbing. Yet the key power groups in the state—greens, public employees, and rent-seeking developers—seem intent on imposing ever more draconian regulations on energy and land use, seeking for example, to ban construction of the single-family houses preferred by the vast majority of Californians.
The increasingly delusional nature of the state’s politics is best captured by the urgent political push to build a fantastically expensive—potentially costing as much as $100 billion—high-speed rail line that would eventually connect the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the largely rural places in between. Obama has aggressively promoted high-speed rail nationally, but has been pushed back by mounting Republican opposition. Yet in one-party California, Jerry Brown mindlessly pushes the project despite the state’s huge structural deficits, soaring pension obligations, and decaying general infrastructure. He’s continued doing so even as the plan loses support among the beleaguered California electorate.
It’s hard to see how these policies, coupled with a massive income tax increase on the so-called rich (families, as well as many small businesses, making over $250,000), can do anything other than widen the state’s already gaping class divide. Yet given the power of Californian ideas over Obama, one can expect more such policies from him in an electorally unencumbered second term. California’s slow-motion tragedy could end up as a national one.