The new USC study pointing to a much-slower population growth rate in California has been greeted by demographers and urban planners as good news, in that it supposedly gives our state’s leaders a little breathing room to plan better for the future. The rate of growth has slowed to about 1 percent a year, the result of fewer immigrants coming here and so many Californians heading to other states.
“The cooling pace means the state, city and county governments and other entities will have more time to prepare for a bigger population than they did in years past, allowing for more effective planning,” according to the Los Angeles Times, paraphrasing the study’s authors. “That could ensure that new roads and parks, for example, are put in areas where they are most needed and where growth is likely to be sustained, they said.”
That’s an absurdly optimistic spin. California’s elected officials have been doing as little planning as possible, unless one counts planning to spend tens of billions of dollars the state doesn’t have on a high-speed rail line that will partially replicate what the airlines already do now. Our leaders are battling new water-storage facilities and punishing farmers with absurd water restrictions. They impose roadblocks toward building new highway systems and land-use regulations make it nearly impossible to build the homes and businesses necessary to meet the needs of a growing population. One can hardly call that planning.
The state is still growing, but this decline in the rate of growth is symbolic news: The California Dream is over. People don’t want to come here even though this is, with little question, the most beautiful state in the union. Americans -- even those who like to mock our state -- ought to think about what this means.
California has always been a magnet -- a land that has called people from across the country and the world. It’s a place that was known for its entrepreneurial spirit and open culture. But it has been turned into a regulatory and tax nightmare, a place where those who already have their money can live in their coastal palaces and enjoy the splendor of the landscapes, but where it’s unnecessarily difficult to move one’s way up the economic ladder. The USC study doesn’t reveal anything new as much as it confirms trends already apparent.
Four million more people have left California for other states than have come here from other states in the past two decades, according to demographer Joel Kotkin. The population growth has been coming mainly from immigrants and births from people already living here, but now the USC study shows that immigrants are going elsewhere. A cynic might say that California’s liberal elites have ended the state’s contentious battles over illegal immigration by destroying opportunities here.
Kotkin, an old-time liberal, sees troubling trends. “Basically, if you don’t own a piece of Facebook or Google and you haven’t robbed a bank and don't have rich parents, then your chances of being able to buy a house or raise a family in the Bay Area or in most of coastal California is pretty weak,” he said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. “The new regime wants to destroy the essential reason why people move to California in order to protect their own lifestyles.” He says the state is run for the benefit of the very rich, the very poor, and public employees.
This is not a healthy society. And the demographic changes point to an aging population. Far from reducing the burdens on the state government, this will increase them. State officials are not building to meet future needs, but they have been squandering future dollars on excessive pay and pension packages for public employees. Look for a coming battle between services for lower-income Californians and retirement benefits for the most powerful special interest group in the state, public employees.
There’s no chance the state’s most serious fiscal issues will be solved or even addressed soon. Earlier this month, Democratic Assembly leaders announced that they have no time to deal with the governor’s modest pension reform plan. They do have time to deal with hundreds of other bills, most of which range from the silly to the crazy. What’s the chance they will handle any of the other issues restricting California’s economy?
Gov. Jerry Brown points to economic growth in Silicon Valley as evidence of the success of his policies, but that area is an anomaly. The rest of the state is struggling. The anti-business, anti-growth policies pursued by Brown’s party will not make the situation better. People fleeing California are small business owners, young families, and tax-producers. They also tend to be more Republican, which means that as the exodus grows, so too grow the state’s tax and political problems. There will be fewer taxpayers and less political competition.
California’s leaders want a slower-growing population. Many Californians, even more conservative ones, will be happy that there will be fewer people and less development. But it’s disturbing that California’s official policy has been to punish people who want to pursue their dreams here. The state’s draconian land-use policies involve limiting growth, thus inflating the cost of property near the coast and pushing less-affluent people inland and to other states.
“What I find reprehensible beyond belief is that the people pushing [high-density housing] themselves live in single-family homes and often drive very fancy cars, but want everyone else to live like my grandmother did in Brownsville in Brooklyn in the 1920s,” Kotkin added, pointing to the “smart-growth” policies that dominate development decisions across California.
California remains a beautiful place, but it no longer is the destination for entrepreneurs, free-spirits, and dreamers. These are the fruits of modern-day progressive policies. This should be the cause of much sadness.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.