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California’s malaise

“California has met the future, and it really doesn’t work. As the mounting panic surrounding the drought suggests, the Golden State, once renowned for meeting human and geographic challenges, is losing its ability to cope with crises. As a result, the great American land of opportunity is devolving into something that resembles feudalism, a society dominated by rich and poor, with little opportunity for upward mobility for the state’s middle- and working classes.”

Joel Kotkin (hat-tip, Café Hayek).

The Kotkin article seems to be getting a bit of attention around parts of the blogsphere, and rightly so. I like his writings and keep an eye on them. There is no doubt that California is in danger of being past the “tipping point” where so much bad decision-making (more and more power to unions, higher taxes, regulations, etc) are pushing the state into a bad place. I occasionally hear calls for California to be broken up, but I have no idea how realistic such a move is. Thoughts?

It is of course easy to get sucked into a downward spiral of pessimism, so that every event appears to confirm the worst. Appearances can be deceptive: when I visit the West Coast it all tends to look very swish and prosperous, and it is only when you spend a bit of time there that the other, less flattering details, arise. The same arises elsewhere: I have been on a business trip to Singapore (I’m back later this year) and I could not help but wonder if there could be a similar issue over there at some point, such as when the Lee dynasty that has run that island with a market-friendly, if not particularly libertarian hand, is replaced by something else.

29 comments to California’s malaise

  • As I often say at times like this: you would need a heart of stone not to laugh 😀

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The reason for breaking up a state is that the central government is a failure, a reason the politicians can’t admit. Technically, there’s a legal process by which states can break apart and be admitted to the Union as new states: factually, it would take a successful armed (but not necessary violent) secession movement by the breakaway part. Not too likely.

  • Russ in TX

    California has several lingering secession movements which cannot succeed because California’s constitution requires that Sacramento give them the blessing to go. On the national stage, Democrats might not object to a break-up (since they control the gerrymandering there, and could engineer a number of additional senators), but on a more local level, any secession is a disaster for Sac’s entrenched interests and will continue to be ignored until that’s no longer possible, and then fought tooth and nail, with every dirty trick a California union rep has in the book.

    These are people who game transparency meetings. Like pension reforms in Rhode Island, any fixes here will be like reforming an alcoholic, and bottom-hitting will likely be required.

  • Greytop

    It is possible that the drought breaks and with the rains (or rather, after the floods) all is restored to what may be considered normal in California. If the state breaks up it still won’t rain just because there are smaller administrative areas, but the big issue that will have to be looked at is who goes where to live. Do you allow people free movement to ‘flee’ certain zones and head to, shall we say, less racially tense area? There are maps of new ‘states’ proposed for California — and I’d like to live in Jefferson, personally but then i am not American — and it pretty much divides up as you might imagine.

    The one thing about smaller states would be that some of the lunatic excesses of some west coast politicians wouldn’t spread far, though they have managed to reach Washington DC easily enough.

  • JohnK

    California is largely a hot and dry state. One hundred years ago, its population was three million, today it is thirty-eight million. The population is about to find there is a reason why you should not build golf courses in a desert. It’s sad in a way, but they will find there are some things which even socialistic pork barrel politics can’t finesse.

  • llamas

    H.L. Mencken had it right:

    “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

    The littoral strip of California has been dominating the politics of the state for years, and all of their silly-ass NIMBYism and half-baked ideas have now got them into the condition they’re in – out of water, out of power, out of housing, out of jobs. As noted above, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

    The whole strip of California from north of LA to the Mexican border used to be plagued with flooding – it’s why they have flood channels a hundred feet deep and hundreds of feet wide running through the heart of the city. The idea that an area like this could be short of water is just laughable.



  • Runcie Balspune

    Being the land where “silicon valley” lies, is there a link between this and GamerGate?

  • Barry Sheridan

    The issue in California is down to the people who live there. I know not all are suffering from a disconnect from realistic decision making, but the most influential are. Nor is the outcome just a problem for Californians, the rest of the U.S. much of Europe faces the same problems. It is no laughing matter.

  • The last time a US state separated (i.e. not a pre-existing territory which was carved into one or more states) was West Virginia and that used the cover and machinations of the War Between the States and slavery to achieve its ends.

    While there is a certain logic in splitting California into North and South, it would never happen without bloodshed.

  • Nor is the outcome just a problem for Californians, the rest of the U.S. much of Europe faces the same problems. It is no laughing matter.

    Oh I dunno, even if I am being caught in the maelstrom myself, there is indeed grim humour to be found in seeing people get exactly what they voted for. I guess I am not a great man, I am just alright.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    John Galt
    April 20, 2015 at 5:30 pm
    While there is a certain logic in splitting California into North and South, it would never happen without bloodshed.

    It might, if the secessionists possessed enough firepower, a la the Bundy Ranch standoff. Political power comes from the trigger of a gun, not the muzzle.

  • llamas

    As someone reminded me over the bar at lunch, the California water shortage is living proof of the Friedman’s adage that, if you were to put the government in charge of the Sahara desert, in five years, you’d have a shortage of sand.

    The last well-considered water engineering in California was done by William Mulholland, he of the Drive and the Falls, and a hundred years ago. Watch ‘Chinatown’ to get an idea of the shenanigans that went on there. His work lasted so well that it was adequate for LA and the San Fernando Valley at least into the 70s and 80s. But in the meantime, agricultural, development and leisure interests managed to get together to hijack the legislature to the point that no amount of water is ever going to be enough to satisfy California’s needs today. It’s all very well to laugh at golf courses in the desert, but they are a drop in the bucket (ha!) compared with the hundreds of square miles of center-pivots marching across the desert, putting uncountable acre-feet of water onto ground that was never suitable to grow anything, never mind tomatoes and garlic. Even tapping the Colorado river at the rate of 750 tons of water per second is not enough to keep up with California’s needs.

    This what you get when you put the State and Federal governments in charge of a resource. In just a couple of generations, they p*ss it all away.



  • Darrell

    Meanwhile, many Californians are fleeing the mess they’ve made, moving to other states, but bringing their west coast attitudes with them. “Don’t Californicate Colorado” was a popular bumper sticker here in CO 40 years ago; it has since happened. We have become California East. The Californians move in, drive housing prices up (WAY up), and vote for the same policies that made such a mess of the place they fled.

  • Libertarians, by their very nature, want to be left alone, and to leave other people alone.

    Statists, by their very nature, want to control other people.

    Government, by its very nature, tends to grow toward controlling other people. Only very very rarely do governments shrink in size and scope.

    Therefore, statists inevitably wrest control of governments from libertarians and individualists. Because they want it more.

  • Nick (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Did anyone else notice the claim that someone had started a new society in Slovakia (or Checkia)? He seceded a small unit of disputed land, and is claiming that it is a libertopia.

  • Chip

    For Singapore, I long believed that it was slowly yet steadily liberalizing its non-economic character. But the recent spate of arrests for sedition, supported in full malicious cry by a significant portion of the population, makes me wonder how durable the country really is.

    Are they one crisis or election away from self destruction? More plausible today than I thought yesterday.

  • Phil B

    Two links that discuss the shortage of water in California:


    Spending $100 to make $10 is a leftists dream …

  • Tedd


    It’s important to keep in mind that the California National Guard alone has more boots and firepower than many comparably sized countries — most, maybe. Without even calling for federal military assistance they could quell a pretty sizeable insurrection.

  • Thailover

    I’m ready for it to crash and burn, and rise from it’s ashes. California, for decades, hasn’t been able to cope with mere existence without federal bailouts and “help” from other states. It’s a classic case of how government paternalism simply does not work.

  • Thailover

    Ferox, you’re right, because the statists want it more, but more importantly, because most people are collectivists (tribalists) and the idea of a benevolent big brother taking care of them appeals to a great number of people. Popular politics wins the day…unfortunately, as a true democracy (majority rule) is the opposite of recognizing the primacy of individual rights.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I occasionally hear calls for California to be broken up, but I have no idea how realistic such a move is.

    Not realistic at all. There would be enormous practical difficulties, such as untangling all the statewide government functions into separate agencies, establishing a new state capital and central administration, etc. Also, the Constitution states that no new state may be formed in the territory of an existing state without that state’s consent, as well as that of Congress.

    There have been two “break-ups” of states in U.S. history.

    Massachusetts Colony originally included “the District of Maine”. Maine was physically separate from the rest of Massachusetts and disliked being governed from Boston, so the District became a separate state in 1820.

    Virginia was originally very extensive. Its colonial claims included everything north of the Virginia-North Carolina border extended to the Mississippi, and the “Old Northwest” (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin). Virginia renounced its claims to the land due west (which became Kentucky) and to the Northwest Territory, but retained a large area SW of Pennsylvania, west of the Appalachians.

    Virginia had a long history of disagreement between the wealthy plantation owners of the “Tidewater”, and the hardscrabble white farmers of the inland areas, particularly the area west of the Allegheny Mountains. There were many calls for the western area to be split off, but the eastern majority ignored them.

    So nothing happened until during the Civil War, when the residents of western Virginia rejected the declaration of secession issued by the eastern-dominated state convention. A group of Union-loyal western Virginians met in their own convention, and declared that the governor et al had forfeited their offices by accepting secession. The convention then appointed a new state government which President Lincoln recognized as “Virginia”. This Virginia government then approved the formation of the state of West Virginia in Virginia west of the Alleghenies. (Three counties in the lower – northern – Shenandoah Valley, east of the Alleghenies, were occupied by Union forces, and were also included in the new state.)

    When Texas was annexed, Congress delegated to Texas the power to form up to four new states in its expansive territory. There have been occasional calls for Texas to exercise this power, but the practical difficulties have always outweighed the added national clout from additional Senate seats.

    With California, there is no strong geographical reason for a split-up, nor any truly deep political or cultural reason. Nor is it likely that the state government will be replaced by an ad hoc regional junta. So it’s not going to happen.

  • Jacob

    “there is a reason why you should not build golf courses in a desert”

    There is no reason… it’s only money… there is enough water in the Pacific ocean, you can desalinate it for a price.
    Anyway, it’s not golf courses that consume most of the water, but agriculture.
    And there is no water shortage problem in California – only a problem of wrong allocation of a resource – an economic problem and an ideological problem

  • Mr Ed

    It is a price problem, and an ownership problem. A golf course in the desert might turn out to be prohibitively expensive, a cucumber farm also. But if prices are rigged by political processes, and set below market price for farming (or golf), then misallocations set in and what might seem a cheap green or cucumber comes at the cost of scarcity for others, that which is seen, and that which is not seen.

    I’m sure that someone in California is blaming that actor ex-Governor who went to Washington…

  • Nick (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Of course you can have golf courses in the desert- just use lots of green paint! And blue paint for the ‘water’! Have they run out of paint?

  • RickC

    Rich Rostrom, regarding your point on Texas, did you mean the clout from having more seats in the House? Also, I’ve always found it ironic that during a war to prevent secession, the Federal government aided a portion of one state to secede from the rest.

  • Paul Marks

    I have already commented on this – I think as a Facebook comment.

    The attack on the collectivist economic policies followed in California is correct.

    But the throwing in of the word “feudalism” is radically wrong – this has got naught to do with feudalism (I doubt the chap knows what the word means – he is using it to mean “boo hiss”).

    California is interesting because, for many years, collectivists have argued that collectivism would work “if”.

    If it was democratic.

    If it was modern.

    If people with knowledge of the latest technology were in charge.

    If people from private business devoted themselves to the public cause.

    All these conditions are met in California.

    The people in charge are well intentioned and well educated.

    And they have the full support of the creative people from the high tech industries.

    It is all “cutting edge” modernism – the very definition of Progressive thought.

    On taxes, government spending, regulations – everything.

    And all with wonderful computer technology being used to “plan” everything.

    And it is not working – it is failing.

    Economic law trumps it all.

    The democracy.

    The good intentions.

    The creative people.

    The high tech gadgets.

    All of it.

    All trumped by economic law.

    Collectivist big government just does not work.

  • Mr Ed

    Collectivist big government just does not work.

    Ah, it’s the greenhouse gases coming over California from sparsely-populated Nevada and the lingering effects of El Niño, we must hike our carbon taxes, then it will work.

  • Collectivist big government just does not work.

    Wreckers and kulaks (also known as the 1%) are still not paying enough taxes. They are too greedy. If we find a way to tax them into “equality” without spooking them into fleeing the state, then it will work.

    Somebody, somewhere, is still racist or sexist or ableist. If we can find a way to get their minds right, then it will work.

    Workers are still allowed to seek employment on their own, without being in a union. If we can make all workspaces closed shops, then it will work.

    A single parent with four children still cannot have a comfortable and materially rich life on minimum wage. If we can raise the minimum wage high enough to make every worker a millionaire, then it will work.

    Men still have some sexual and economic autonomy. If we can find a way to bring those misogynistic bastards to heel, then it will work.

    Bad thinking racist tea baggers still have the right to speak their hate speech. If we can silence those who disagree with us, then it will work.

    Black people whose great-great-great-great-great grandparents were slaves still have not received a massive payout from whites whose great-great-great-great-great grandparents might have owned slaves. If we can seize the wealth of whites and give it to blacks, then it will work.

    We have too many poor people from across the border. If we raise Mexico’s standard of living to equal our own, then it will work.

    We have too few poor people from across the border. If we eliminate our borders and allow unfettered immigration, then it will work.

    Our many poor people don’t have enough free goods and services. If we recognize their positive rights to food, work, land, transportation, health care, and higher education, then it will work.

    If we only have more, more, more political power, then it will work.

    Collectivism never runs out of excuses for its own failures. That’s because the destination is a decoy. It’s the journey toward the Utopian state that the collectivists are interested in, not the attainment of Utopia. After all, no self respecting collectivist would actually want to live in a Utopian state – how then would they justify their boot on everyone else’s throats?

  • Mr Ed

    Meanwhile in New York State, chimpanzees come under a writ of habeas corpus pending resolution of the issue of their status.