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Explaining California “lifers,” or why people stay in a failed state.

November 13, 2012 3 comments

I have been a resident of several states across the United States, but two in particular stand out. One is California, to which I moved when I was ten, left at fifteen, and returned to for college. The other is Minnesota, where I was born, but to which I did not return until after college.

Just recently, my total time spent as a Minnesota resident surpassed my time as a Californian, capturing a plurality of my life’s years. Many have found it remarkable that I left a tropical paradise like California for the frigid tundra of Minnesota, but if you can look past the weather, California simply isn’t a great place to live. As I have been saying for years, “it’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to die there.”

Many of my friends disagree with me. One has spent nearly 70 years (aside from higher education back east) in the same beach community. Another calls himself a California “lifer,” which I find eerily similar to how prisoners with life sentences describe themselves.

In any case, while California has many things acting in its favor, it is nevertheless a failed state that I simply cannot find attractive as a home. To be fair, Minnesota is also heading in the wrong direction, but if California is just about to break the tape, Minnesota is still putting its running shoes on.

Victor Davis Hanson at the City Journal recently attempted to explain why he is a California “lifer,” in an article entitled “California, Here We Stay.” Many reasons he cites make perfect sense. Family heritage is one, and it is perfectly understandable. Indeed, it is the best reason I can think of for why I live in Minnesota and not Texas. There is the weather, of course. And there are certain cultural and educational institutions that are very attractive.

On the other hand, hegemony and inertia cannot prevail forever – just ask Britain, Rome, Greece, even Akkad. The general rule is that it is better to be present for the incline phase than the decline phase, and I can’t help but think that even the best of California has hit its peak. If UC Berkeley were a stock, it’d be Pets.com.

Hanson is honest about California’s shortcomings. Finances built on rainbows-and-unicorns accounting methods; poor primary and secondary education; hostile business climate running the productive out of state; environmental extremism – all of these things are conspiring to choke off the best of what the state has to offer the world.

On the other hand, he makes a point that I simply cannot get behind:

Another reason to feel hopeful about California is that it’s reaching the theoretical limits of statism. To pay for current pensioners, the state simply can’t continue to bestow comparable defined-benefit pension packages on new workers, no matter how stridently the public-sector unions claim otherwise. And as public insolvencies mount—with Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and San Bernardino seeking bankruptcy protection a year after Vallejo emerged from it—public blame is finally shifting from supposedly heartless state taxpayers to the unions. The liberal unionism of an aging generation is proving untenable, as we saw in recent ballot referenda in which voters in San Diego and San Jose demanded that public-worker compensation plans be renegotiated.

California is reaching the theoretical limits of statism? This strikes me as remarkably naive, and it sounds hauntingly similar to things like “it couldn’t happen here,” or “it can’t get any worse.” Or perhaps “there are no black swans.”

I for one prefer not to underestimate the statist impulses of a polity that has consistently pushed the once-bright beacon of hope that was California back into the dark ages of economic and social thought. And they did it in less than a century and a half to boot.

In my personal opinion, the decay in California is not over, and it is not close to being over. I know that making predictions is the easiest way to be proven wrong, but here goes nothing.

I think that California will continue to be held in a chokehold by statists until the situation becomes completely untenable on a state level. At that point, the citizens of California will become enraged – not at their elected Judas goats, but at the federal government for not bailing them out. Seeing the practical importance of California’s electoral votes to their parties, the statist kindred spirits in Washington will forge a bipartisan grand bargain to bail out California, complete with all the crony capitalism and blatant corruption that entails. California will then double down on its failed policies and things will get worse. Another bailout will happen in quick succession, and while token gestures may be made to restore fiscal sanity, the damage will have been done.

California’s future is not bright. Perhaps California “lifers” have a reason to stay if they are already wealthy or comfortable enough to avoid the worst of the coming catastrophe. But if you’re a common person, your odds are poor.  I fully expect to see the middle class, whose livelihoods are far more likely to hinge on the day-to-day health of the economy than the wealthy, to continue to flee.

My only hope is that they don’t bring the politics of old California with them when they go.

Setting Fire to Straw Men and Slaughtering Paper Tigers

September 28, 2011 6 comments

If you’re a regular on www.facebook.com, you have probably seen various picture-quotations popping up on your wall lately.  In a word, these need to stop.  They are almost universally moronic (see: Elizabeth Warren), and they never encapsulate the depth of thought required to address real issues.  In fact, the only purpose they serve is to make the public discourse all the more shallow.  My position is that we need more principles and fewer slogans.

Take this gem of stupidity for example, provided by rocket scientists over at “Americans Against the Tea Party”:

Click through and you’ll see exactly what I mean about shallow public discourse.  We see tax protestors, and then we see various things pointed out as government services which are supposedly beyond reproach.  There are multiple problems with this.

First, street signs, roads, sidewalks, power lines, etc. are indeed a part of the state budget (most power lines and utilities are in fact privately owned, but let’s extend the benefit of the doubt).  Because the tax protesters are in close proximity to these things, and probably use them on a daily basis, their arguments are somehow supposed to be less valid.

This is not so, and it is one of the most common rhetorical head fakes of the class warrior set.  Those people who talk about limited government are not talking about roads.  They are not talking about police, or fire departments, or even education as a general matter.  Cutting budgets for these are just about the last thing on the agenda.

The things that are crushing this country and the states within it are not the “night-watchmen” government services like the foregoing.  They are overwhelmingly transfer payments, corporate welfare, bureaucracy, and regulation.

Take California for example.  In state-issued budget charts, we can easily see that “Transportation, Total” is about $8.7 billion out of a $117 billion 2009-10 budget (and more than half of that is federally-provided funds!).  Even if we assume that all spending remotely related to transportation is justified, that is about 7.4% of the total budget. 

What about the other 92%?  Is it that unreasonable to think that perhaps something could be cut there?  That perhaps we do not need any more taxes to support the bloat that makes up the majority of government?  Congratulations “Americans Against the Tea Party.”  You’ve set fire to a straw man, and the nation is dumber for it.

My point is that we should all be thinking a little bit deeper about the real issues, so I’ll briefly touch on what I think those are: 

According to other publicly-available information, in the past 25 years the California budget has grown from $12.5 billion to $129.5 billion (although it peaked one year earlier at $135.9 billion).  That is a 1,036% increase.  What are the main drivers of the increase in state spending?  Transfer payments. 

Because we have decided that people deserve health care because they cannot pay for it, and because we have decided that people deserve to be given things because they have not earned them, we have blown up our budgets ten-fold.  But there aren’t any little arrows pointing to entitlements are there?  No arrow that points to lack of responsibility.  No arrow that points to vote buying.

Then there is the idea that whatever the government “provides” us is better than the alternative.  I find it insufferable when people defending government spending point to government monopolies as evidence of the great things that government provides us.  They are monopolies!  If we had a choice about how to fund our roads and street signs and sidewalks, I would imagine that we would find better ways to fund them than funneling real money through make-work bureaucrats, overpaying for labor, and ending up with sub-par facilities anyway.  In fact, just about any system of private financing would make more sense.

But let us assume ad arguendum that it is, in fact, the state’s responsibility to fund things like transportation.  Can we then justify even that 7.4% of the overall budget, as is clearly assumed by the picture above?  Even the most superficial investigation tells us no. 

Certainly main roads and highways should be built and maintained.  But what about light rail that nobody rides?  What about bus routes that nobody uses?  What about public transport options that hemorrhage taxpayer cash yet exclude private competitors by law?  What about “green” options that do nothing but prop up politically-connected businesses that have no way of sustaining themselves other than patronage?  Even under the assumption that the picture above has justified transportation spending, I believe that it has justified a fraction of the total.  Perhaps half if I am charitable.

And what of the funding options available?  Again, assuming that it is the state’s duty to fund this sort of thing, what makes us think that we are doing it correctly by using taxes?  Why spread the costs among everyone, despite the fact that usage varies?  I would argue that a system of user fees would a far more equitable way to go.  This would put the burden of transportation use on those people who actually use transportation.  And like the sign says, it would require no taxes. 

If I had one piece of advice to give my facebook friends it would be this.  Think before you post.  What seems like a cutting commentary on social issues ends up making you look like an idiot.

More on Transit Insanity, This Time in California

June 3, 2011 Leave a comment

I got a little bit of blowback on my article a couple weeks back called Minnesota’s Billion Dollar Mistake with Light Rail.  It was not so much because people disagreed with me that building 10 miles of track that nobody will use for $1 billion that we have no hope of paying off is a monumentally stupid idea.  Instead, they disagreed with my elitism.

I enter a demurrer.

Fact is, I agree with the wise words of Jeremy Clarkson, who says that public transport is for poor people, and walking is for readers of the Guardian.  In any event, I would not seem so elitist if other people stopped being so shitty.

But on a serious note, my lament over the state of transportation financing in Minnesota has its corollaries across the country, and none seem to provoke any more optimism than Minnesota’s.

Over at Reason, Tim Cavanaugh spells out California’s coming disaster in an article called “America Pays for Villaraigosa’s Transit Legacy.”  Transit plans in Los Angeles are expected to cost $13.7 billion, which in government math is likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion.  But, as Cavanaugh says, the real joke is on American taxpayers, who will be expected to foot the bill when the transit projects inevitably fail to pay for themselves.

Perhaps befitting a town known colloquially as “la-la land,” politicians and rail boosters in Los Angeles have completely deluded themselves about the financial condition of their railway fantasies.  Here’s a fun bit of nonsense:

L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, one of the idea’s largest boosters, pronounces that the project—which includes an extension of a subway line to the West Side V.A. hospital and an at-grade rail line from USC to Santa Monica, as well as a plan to take away one lane of highly congested Wilshire Boulevard and turn it into a bus-only route—would “create 918,300 jobs paying $50.8 billion in wages.”

Cute.  Ridiculous, but cute.  If everything were this successful, why in the world would there ever be private industry?  The government could just employ every single person in the country and watch the money multiply!

And anyway, what better to way to rev the economic engine than to take away a lane of traffic in a bustling business district?

The idiocy doesn’t end there, of course.  When in 2008 Angelenos approved a 0.5% county sales tax, they were told that it would go toward things like potholes and road resurfacing:

The Los Angeles County MTA’s Measure R splash page highlights the road and driving elements of the measure, with its top bullet point noting that MTA has disbursed “$100 million for…projects such as pothole repairs, major street resurfacing, left-turn signals, bikeways, pedestrian improvements, streetscapes, traffic signal synchronization and local transit services.”

That’s worked about as well as (wait for it) …light rail:

More than two years in, Los Angeles now fixes nearly a third fewer potholes than it did before. According to the Measure R expenditure plan a mere 15 percent of money from the sales tax is designated for road service. The largest portion goes to new rail projects, though only the Expo Line from USC is currently under active construction.

I suppose I would be pretty angry to be told that road resurfacing funds directly applicable to my daily commute are now being funneled into a rail line so that spoiled children at USC find it easier to get to Sharkeez on Thursday night.  (Full disclosure: I used to be one of those spoiled children, though Sharkeez was never my scene.)

But I suppose I would be even angrier to be told that that particular waste of money is the only line that is even being built.  Only in the world of public expenditure can so much wasteful spending go to things that do not even exist yet.

But I am no longer an Angeleno, which means that I am angriest of all.  The half-percent sales tax is, as Cavanaugh noted, something that the morons who voted for it totally deserve.  But why do I deserve to have tax money siphoned out of my wallet so that someone half a country a way can feel good about how “green” their county is before hopping back into the car for their 40 mile commute home?

Ultimately, it is unfair for all of Minnesota, and all of the country’s taxpayers, to fund a rail line to get the spoiled children at the University of Minnesota to the bars in Lowertown more easily on Thursday night.  (Full disclosure: I was a Gopher too.)  It is unfair for the rest of the country to subsidize California’s rail lines that nobody will use either.  And fundamentally, the financing situation is dismal across the board – the projects are built on laughable projections and have no viable chance of independent financial success.

Nevertheless, you (yes, you) will be paying for them for decades to come.  It is time for some real outrage about federal involvement in local transit projects.  Let’s get angry.

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