Raising the Drawbridge
California’s New Feudalism Benefits a Few at the Expense of the Multitude
The Golden State has lots of billionaires but also high poverty and downward mobility, writes Joel Kotkin.
California has been the source of much innovation, from agribusiness and oil to fashion and the digital world. Historically much richer than the rest of the country, it was also the birthplace, along with Levittown, of the mass-produced suburb, freeways, much of our modern entrepreneurial culture, and of course mass entertainment. For most of a century, for both better and worse, California has defined progress, not only for America but for the world.
As late as the 80s, California was democratic in a fundamental sense, a place for outsiders and, increasingly, immigrants—roughly 60 percent of the population was considered middle class. Now, instead of a land of opportunity, California has become increasingly feudal. According to recent census estimates, the state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.
At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country—23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally—worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.
Like medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and doing worse than their parents: native born Latinos actually have shorter lifespans than their parents, according to one recent report. Nor are things expected to get better any time soon. According to a recent Hoover Institution survey, most Californians expect their incomes to stagnate in the coming six months, a sense widely shared among the young, whites, Latinos, females, and the less educated.
Some of these trends can be found nationwide, but they have become pronounced and are metastasizing more quickly in the Golden State. As late as the 80s, the state was about as egalitarian as the rest of the country. Now, for the first time in decades, the middle class is a minority, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
The Role of the tech oligarchs.
California produces more new billionaires than any place this side of oligarchic Russia or crony capitalist China. By some estimates the Golden State is home to one out of every nine of the world’s billionaires. In 2011 the state was home to 90 billionaires, 20 more than second place New York and more than twice as many as booming Texas.
The state’s digital oligarchy, surely without intention, is increasingly driving the state’s lurch towards feudalism. Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that itself is increasingly oligopolistic. In contrast to the traditionally conservative or libertarian ethos of the entrepreneurial class, the oligarchy is increasingly allied with the nominally populist Democratic Party and its regulatory agenda. Along with the public sector, Hollywood, and their media claque, they present California as “the spiritual inspiration” for modern “progressives” across the country.
Through their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs have made job creation in non tech-businesses—manufacturing, energy, agriculture—increasingly difficult through “green energy” initiatives that are also sure to boost already high utility costs. One critic, state Democratic Senator Roderick Wright from heavily minority Inglewood, compares the state’s regulatory regime to the “vig” or high interest charged by the Mafia, calling it a major reason for disinvestment in many industries.
Yet even in Silicon Valley, the expansion of prosperity has been extraordinarily limited. Due to enormous losses suffered in the current tech bubble, tech job creation in Silicon Valley has barely reached its 2000 level. In contrast, previous tech booms, such as the one in the 90s, doubled the ranks of the tech community. Some, like UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, advance the dubious claim that those jobs are more stable than those created in Texas. But even if we concede that point for the moment, the Valley’s growth primarily benefits its denizens but not most Californians. Since the recession, California remains down something like 500,000 jobs, a 3.5 percent loss, while its Lone Star rival has boosted its employment by a remarkable 931,000, a gain of more than 9 percent.
Much of this has to do with the changing nature of California’s increasingly elite—driven economy. Back in the 80s and even the 90s, the state’s tech sector produced industrial jobs that sparked prosperity not only in places like Palo Alto, but also in the more hardscrabble areas in San Jose and even inland cities such as Sacramento. The once huge California aerospace industry, centered in Los Angeles, employed hundreds of thousands, not only engineers but skilled technicians, assemblers, and administrators.
This picture has changed over the past decade. California’s tech manufacturing sector has shrunk, and those employed in Silicon Valley are increasingly well-compensated programmers, engineers and marketers. There has been little growth in good-paying blue collar or even middle management jobs. Since 2001 state production of “middle skill” jobs—those that generally require two years of training after high-school—have grown roughly half as quickly as the national average and one-tenth as fast as similar jobs in arch-rival Texas.
“The job creation has changed,” says Leslie Parks, a long-time San Jose economic development official. “We used to be the whole food chain and create all sorts of middle class jobs. Now, increasingly, we don’t design the future—we just think about it. That makes some people rich, but not many.”
In the midst of the current Silicon Valley boom, incomes for local Hispanics and African-Americans, who together account for one third of the population, have actually declined—18 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Latinos between 2009 and 2011, prompting one local booster to admit that “Silicon Valley is two valleys. There is a valley of haves, and a valley of have-nots.”
The Geography of Inequality
Geography, caste, and land ownership increasingly distinguish California’s classes from one another. As Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and the wealthier suburbs in the Bay Area have enjoyed steady income growth during the current bubble, much of the state, notes economist Bill Watkins, endures Depression-like conditions, with stretches of poverty more reminiscent of a developing country than the epicenter of advanced capitalism.
Once you get outside the Bay Area, unemployment in many of the state’s largest counties—Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Fresno, and Oakland—soars into the double digits. Indeed, among the 20 American cities with the highest unemployment rates, a remarkable 11 are in California, led by Merced’s mind-boggling 22 percent rate.
This amounts to what conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson has labeled “liberal apartheid,” a sharp divide between a well-heeled, mostly white and Asian population located along the California coast, and a largely poor, heavily Latino working class in the interior. But the class divide is also evident within the large metro areas, despite their huge concentrations of affluent individuals. Los Angeles, for example, has the third highest rate of inequality of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas, and the Bay Area ranks seventh.
The current surge of California triumphalism, trumpeted mostly by the ruling Democrats and their eastern media allies, seems to ignore the reality faced by residents in many parts of the state. The current surge of wealth among the coastal elites, boosted by rises in property, stock, and other assets, has staved off a much feared state bankruptcy. Yet the the state’s more intractible problems cannot be addressed if growth remains restricted to a handful of favored areas and industries. This will become increasingly clear when, as is inevitable, the current tech and property boom fades, depriving the state of the taxes paid by high income individuals.
The gap between the oligarchic class and everyone else seems increasingly permanent. A critical component of assuring class mobility, California’s once widely admired public schools were recently ranked near the absolute bottom in the country. Think about this: despite the state’s huge tech sector, California eighth graders scored 47th out of the 51 states in science testing. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg and other oligarchs are so anxious to import “techno coolies” from abroad.
As in medieval times, land ownership, particularly along the coast, has become increasingly difficult for those not in the upper class. In 2012, four California markets—San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—ranked as the most unaffordable relative to income in the nation. The impact of these prices falls particularly on the poor. According to the Center for Housing Policy and National Housing Conference, 39 percent of working households in the Los Angeles metropolitan area spend more than half their income on housing, as do 35 percent in the San Francisco metro area—both higher than 31 percent in the New York area and well above the national rate of 24 percent. This is likely to get much worse given that California median housing prices rose 31 percent in the year ending May 2013. In the Bay Area the increase was an amazing 43 percent.
Even skilled workers are affected by these prices. An analysis done for National Core, a major developer of low income housing, found that prices in such areas as Orange County are so high that even a biomedical engineer earning more than $100,000 a year could not afford to buy a home there. This, as well as the unbalanced economy, has weakened California’s hold on aspirational families, something that threatens the very dream that has attracted millions to the state.
This is a far cry from the 50s and 60s, when California abounded in new owner-occupied single family homes. Historian Sam Bass Warner suggested that this constituted “the glory of Los Angeles and an expression of its design for living.” Yet today the L.A. home ownership rate, like that of New York, stands at about half the national average of 65 percent. This is particularly true among working class and minority households. Atlanta’s African-American home ownership rate is approximately 40 percent above that of San Jose or Los Angeles, and approximately 50 percent higher than San Francisco.
This feudalizing trend is likely to worsen due to draconian land regulations that will put the remaining stock of single family houses ever further out of reach, something that seems related to a reduction in child-bearing in the state. As the “Ozzie and Harriet” model erodes, many Californians end up as modern day land serfs, renting and paying someone else’s mortgage. If they seek to start a family, their tendency is to look elsewhere, ironically even in places such as Oklahoma and Texas, places that once sent eager migrants to the Golden State.
Breaking Down the New Feudalism: The Emerging Class Structure
The emerging class structure of neo-feudalism, like its European and Asian antecedents, is far more complex than simply a matter of the gilded “them” and the broad “us.” To work as a system, as we can now see in California, we need to understand the broader, more divergent class structure that is emerging.
The Oligarchs: The swelling number of billionaires in the state, particularly in Silicon Valley, has enhanced power that is emerging into something like the old aristocratic French second estate. Through public advocacy and philanthropy, the oligarchs have tended to embrace California’s “green” agenda, with a very negative impact on traditional industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, energy, and construction. Like the aristocrats who saw all value in land, and dismissed other commerce as unworthy, they believe all value belongs to those who own the increasingly abstracted information revolution than has made them so fabulously rich.
The Clerisy: The Oligarchs may have the money, but by themselves they cannot control a huge state like California, much less America. Gentry domination requires allies with a broader social base and their own political power. In the Middle Ages, this role was played largely by the church; in today’s hyper-secular America, the job of shaping the masses has fallen to the government apparat, the professoriat, and the media, which together constitute our new Clerisy. The Clerisy generally defines societal priorities, defends “right-thinking” oligarchs, and chastises those, like traditional energy companies, that deviate from their theology.
The New Serfs: If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will be the permanently property-less. This group includes welfare recipients and other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor. In the past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized by property ownership or better prospects for their children. Now, with increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less gruesome. This sad result remains inevitable as long as the state’s economy bifurcates between a small high-wage, tech-oriented sector, and an expanding number of lower wage jobs in hospitality, health services, and personal service jobs. As a result, the working class, stunted in their drive to achieve the California dream, now represents the largest portion of domestic migrants out of the state.
The Yeomanry: In neo-feudalist California, the biggest losers tend to be the old private sector middle class. This includes largely small business owners, professionals, and skilled workers in traditional industries most targeted by regulatory shifts and higher taxes. Once catered to by both parties, the yeomanry have become increasingly irrelevant as California has evolved into a one-party state where the ruling Democrats have achieved a potentially permanent, sizable majority consisting largely of the clerisy and the serf class, and funded by the oligarchs. Unable to influence government and largely disdained by the clerisy, these middle income Californians are becoming a permanent outsider group, much like the old Third Estate in early medieval times, forced to pay ever higher taxes as well as soaring utility bills and required to follow regulations imposed by people who often have little use for their “middle class” suburban values.
The Political Implications of Neo-Feudalism
As Marx, among others, has suggested, class structures contain within them the seeds of their dissolution. In New York, a city that is arguably as feudal as anything in California, the emergence of mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio reflected growing antagonism—particularly among the remaining yeoman and serf class— towards the gentry urbanism epitomized by Mayor Michael “Luxury City” Bloomberg.
Yet except for occasional rumbling from the left, neo-feudalism likely represents the future. Certainly in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit with the intellectual and political skills needed to oversee a neo-feudal society, remains all but unassailable politically. If Brown, or his policies, are to be contested, the challenge will likely come from left-wing activists who find his policies insufficiently supportive of the spending demanded by the clerisy and the serfs or insufficiently zealous in their pursuit of environmental purity.
The economy in California and elsewhere likely will determine the viability of neo-feudalism. If a weaker economy forces state and local government budget cutbacks, there could be a bruising conflict as the various classes fight over diminishing spoils. But it’s perhaps more likely that we will see enough slow growth so that Brown will be able to keep both the clerisy and the serfs sufficiently satisfied. If that is the case, the new feudal system could shape the evolution of the American class structure for decades to come.