The Premises of Golden State Dysfunction

Anyone unfamiliar with what is really going on in California would have listened to Governor Newsom’s State of the State address on February 12 and gotten the impression that things have never been better. Newsom’s opening set the tone for the rest of his 4,400-word monologue:

By every traditional measure, the state of our state is strong. We have a record-breaking surplus. We’ve added 3 million jobs since the depths of the recession. Wages are rising. We have more scientists, researchers, and engineers, more Nobel laureates, and the finest system of higher education anywhere in the world.

Newsom, to his credit, immediately qualified his sunny opening with a disclaimer that might be the understatement of the century, saying, “But along with that prosperity and progress, there are problems that have been deferred for too long and that threaten to put the California dream out of reach for too many. We face hard decisions that are coming due.”

Ain’t that the truth! And Gavin Newsom, the political party he represents, and the ideology they’ve embraced, cannot possibly solve these “problems that have been deferred for too long.” 

First, because Newsom and his gang created the problems, and second because the ideology to which they adhere is based on premises that are both economically unsustainable and destined eventually to deliver not solutions, but tyranny.

Here are the three core premises of California’s dysfunction.

The Climate Emergency

Every policy in California must be run through the filter of its impact on “climate change.” At some point over the past 20  years, state-mandated “environmental impact” reports morphed into “climate change” impact reports. It is impossible to overstate the degree to which this has stunted economic opportunities and raised the cost of living in California, and there is no end in sight. 

“Climate change” impact is the pretext for countless laws and regulations, along with endless litigation, and its reach expands every year. If what you do moves electrons or involves combustion, convection, emission, discharge, motion, extraction, construction, anything—then there is justification for “carbon accounting,” and into the breach ride the carbon accountants, the consulting experts, the bureaucrats, the attorneys, the regulators, and the legislators. “Climate change” is the pretext for an entire parasitic industry, and there is no theoretical limit to the scope of its authority.

The problem with this premise, beyond the fact it justifies an ongoing and inexorable creep towards micromanaged tyranny, is that it can’t be challenged. To suggest there might be other political priorities, unintended consequences, or even to just ask for a cost-benefit analysis, is to be branded a “denier”—as if someone who doesn’t think the world is about to end through “climate change,” or just thinks many of the proposed solutions are ludicrous in addition to being tyrannical, is the moral equivalent of a holocaust denier.

Yet it is the harping on the “climate emergency” that represents an explicitly fascist political ideology, according to at least two conventional definitions of fascism. It requires an economic model where corporate oligopolies act in junior partnership to an authoritarian government. At the same time, it justifies itself according to a moral framework that does not tolerate dissent and relies on fomenting panic and fear to secure popular support. There is nothing that escapes the authoritarian reach of “climate change” policies.

The entire premise, that “climate change” is an emergency and that no sacrifice is too great in order to stop it, is based on exaggerations and lies and spread by people motivated by power and profit. It is not enough to oppose the myriad policies justified by the “climate emergency.” This fundamental premise, that it is an emergency eclipsing all other political priorities, must be utterly broken.

Eliminating Privilege and Oppression

This mantra, repeated across the United States by the American Left, is especially entrenched in California. And the laws attendant to it, like those attendant to the “climate emergency,” continue to multiply with no end in sight. 

Whether it’s women, transgenders, gays, lesbians, “people of color,” or any other identifiable group where some statistical disparity in their aggregate achievements can be identified, new laws are being passed to join well-established laws, all designed to enforce equal outcomes. 

All of this relies on a premise that supposedly has passed almost beyond debate, that “cisgender heteronormative white males” have engaged in systemic racism since the dawn of time against everyone who is not a “cisgender heteronormative white male,” and this explains every statistical disparity between their achievement and that of everyone else.

Densification and inclusionary zoning epitomize how California’s ruling elite is waging war against its own citizens—and that ruling class very explicitly includes Gavin Newsom.

There is so much wrong and evil about this premise it is hard to pick where to begin. First, it probably makes sense to remind the purveyors of this nonsense that life on earth has never been fair, but when it comes to “inclusion and equity,” no culture on earth comes anywhere close to America. 

Perhaps more people should say to anyone tempted to declare themselves a victim of systemic oppression, “too bad, and grow up, because the cure you are proposing is far worse than the disease.” Perhaps anyone who thinks they’ve got it so bad in the United States, much less California, should be invited to return to their nations of origin, and see if they find themselves feeling more welcome or with more access to opportunity.

The problems facing California’s residents who are not “cisgender heteronormative white males” are made far more challenging by a leftist establishment telling them their prospects are diminished by “systemic oppression.” They aren’t. 

Join the military and get free college tuition when you’re discharged. Learn the plumbing trade and make $175,000 per year because there’s a shortage of plumbers. Quit pretending a degree in “ethnic” (or whatever) studies is marketable in the real world, and instead train to become a nurse and make $175,000 a year because we have a chronic shortage of nurses. Whoever you are: you’re not an automatic victim based on your group identity, despite what you’re hearing from some blowhard who’s made a career of saying so.

Claiming “privilege and oppression” are “systemic” and that laws are necessary to stop it will destroy America. It will fracture our culture and paralyze our economy. It is a lie based on biased, self-serving “facts” and studies, and just as in the case with the “climate emergency,” it is used to justify a parasitic industry. It cannot be stopped by fighting the myriad and derivative battles over budgets and legislation. The root premise must be relentlessly rejected, and everyone, regardless of his or her possible “protected status,” must be recruited to join in this attack.

Capitalism Is Evil! Long Live Capitalism!

Into this broad category can be found most of the remaining flawed but fundamental premises of California’s ruling elite. In no particular order, here are some of the delusions and lies that derive from this impossible, contradictory, blatantly hypocritical premise:

It is possible to make it impossible for the free market to build anything affordable in California, thanks to crippling regulations and punitive fees, yet it is possible to spend even more per unit, using taxpayer money, to build government-funded “affordable housing.”

It is possible to award pension benefits to state and local government employees that average three times (if not more) what private-sector workers may receive from Social Security, and then—while attacking capitalist profiteers at every turn, and demanding more regulations and taxes to control them and make them pay their “fair share”—simultaneously claim that pension benefits are sustained by returns on smartly invested asset portfolios, returns that are only possible via profits.

It is necessary to curb the excesses of capitalism through expansive legislation and regulations, because capitalism is inherently oppressive to “marginalized communities” and “working families,” yet the ultimate victims of these laws and regulations are always the small family-owned businesses and emerging innovative potential competitors to large companies because they lack the financial resiliency to comply. Meanwhile, the large monopolistic corporations actually consolidate their positions in the market.

It is economically sustainable to curb development of land, energy, water, and roads, in order to protect the environment, because the resulting scarcity creates an explosion in asset values. This, in turn, enables a financialization of California’s economy as people borrow on the artificially inflated collateral of their home equity – sometimes just to make ends meet. The increased consumer activity, debt-fueled, bolsters corporate profits and investment portfolio returns. The bubble never pops.

The Consequences of Lies

Nearly everything California’s ruling elite does wrong derives from these three premises. The first two are never challenged, and the third is a paradox, barely understood but best summarized by this: Democrats, not Republicans, are the party supported by the financial sector and the super-wealthy, and they are systematically exterminating the middle class, and making things harder, not easier, for low-income communities.

One of the policies central to California’s oppressive dysfunction is so-called “densification” or urban containment. Rarely discussed holistically, it is foundational to what ails California, and it is a consequence of all three premises.

The policy of densification means that new cities and towns cannot be built outside of existing urban areas. New housing subdivisions cannot extend beyond the existing urban periphery. This is justified based on protecting the environment as if 95 percent of California’s more than 160,000 square miles of land weren’t still rural. It is justified as a way to stop “climate change,” as if vehicles weren’t becoming cleaner and greener every year, and as if jobs wouldn’t follow residents into new cities.

Densification is also justified based on combating “racism,” because if jobs follow residents to new communities outside the existing urban core, then somehow this means no jobs will remain for people still living there—who may be disproportionately represented by members of “disadvantaged communities.”

The economic premise behind densification, besides the rabid and cynical certainty that artificial scarcity causes asset bubbles that reward speculative investors and predatory home equity loan sharks, is that suburbs require roads that require “subsidies.” 

When making this argument, California’s ruling elites find useful and very idiotic support from libertarian dogmatists, who have made a lifestyle of living with paradoxical, self-contradictory beliefs. “Let’s not subsidize the car,” is what these libertarians will smugly assert, hoping for a pat on the back from the progressives with whom they’ve found common ground. No, of course not. Let’s just subsidize light rail, trolleys, buses, and every other imaginable conveyance instead.

The wicked first cousin of densification is “inclusive zoning.” This is a policy that also relies on all three of California’s dysfunctional premises. Taking hold in the form of long-standing mandates to include subsidized “affordable housing” in virtually every housing development and new mandates requiring cities and counties to approve “accessory dwelling units” inside any residential backyard bigger than a postage stamp, it is based on the premise that “disadvantaged communities” will suddenly be uplifted if they are able to live in subsidized units of housing in affluent neighborhoods.

Inclusive zoning, by its very nature, is consistent with the environmentally motivated policy of densification since these mandated “affordable” units are smaller than the housing that surrounds them, consuming backyard lawns instead of “open space.” They are also consistent with combating “oppression,” since lower-income individuals will occupy these units. 

California Is Waging War on Californians

The most pernicious way in which inclusive zoning follows from California’s dysfunctional premises, however, is in the economic realm. 

What inclusive zoning mandates allow is an invasion of predatory real estate speculators to pour into every tranquil, shady neighborhood in California, where they will encounter homes that are worth more demolished than left standing. They will raze, randomly, homes throughout these to-date intact neighborhoods, and then, relying upon tax incentives to fund the construction, they will replace these homes with fourplexes that will house low-income residents living on taxpayer-supported rent subsidies.

Densification and inclusionary zoning epitomize how California’s ruling elite is waging war against its own citizens—and that ruling class very explicitly includes Gavin Newsom. 

These policies reflect a contempt for the middle class bordering on hatred. No fair-minded person objects to people who look different or have different lifestyles living in their neighborhoods. What they object to is having their neighborhoods destroyed through densification, then filled up with new residents whose residences and rent payments are largely paid for through higher taxes.

If you object to this because you worked hard to live in a nice neighborhood, too bad. It wasn’t hard work that got you there, it was “privilege.” And if you object because you don’t like seeing homes randomly demolished and replaced with apartments, too bad, you must be a “denier.” And if you think the economics are unsustainable—after all, at what point does the construction of tax-subsidized “affordable housing” and regular payments of tax-subsidized monthly rents cause government budgets to implode—well that’s just too bad, because all the smart libertarians joined with all the smart progressives to do this to you. 

As for the tony enclaves of California’s wealthiest? They litigate and lobby for exemptions to the rules they make for the rest of us, and laugh all the way to the bank.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media via Getty Images

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