In Sunday’s SF Chron, clever seeming anti-urbanist critic Joel Kotkin tells an increasingly familiar story about the tarnished reputation of the Golden State:
Our magnificent state may still be the home to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the nation’s largest port complex and the world’s richest agricultural valleys, but by many critical measurements the state is slipping.
What are the problems, and how can we move forward through them? Is Mr Kotkin or anyone else in the state proposing serious solutions?
The list of troubles he runs through is sort of a narrative version of the Corporation for Economic Development’s Development Report Card project’s report card for California. (hat tip to the champs at the Progressive States Network for putting this in my inbox). This is a deeply considered and superbly executed project that basically looks at all of the factors that go into high road economic development. Shocking as this might be to conservatives and their tax cuts solve all problems approach, there is of course a whole lot more to this than just that.
The report cards starts out with a fundamental truth that often gets forgotten: “California has consistently been an outstanding place to conduct business.” We lead in unsurprising categories like numbers of PhDs, venture capital investments, average annual pay, per capita energy consumption (topic of a terrific recent Paul Krugman article, behind the TimesSelect paywall), patents issued, etc etc.
But we have big problems, too. This is a smattering of the state’s weaknesses and where in the ranking of all 50 states we come in:
41 Working Poor
41 Uninsured Low-Income Children
43 Employer-Provided Health Insurance
45 Income Distribution
46 K-12 Education Expenditures
49 Homeownership Rate
49 Voting Rate
50 Change in High School Attainment
50 Affordable Urban Housing
One of the reasons this project is so helpful is that list, an unusually handy version of what elected leaders, activists and citizens who are serious about moving this state forward should be putting forward.
Back to Mr Kotkin, who, in the finest New America Foundation, pox on both their houses tradition, assures us that “neither political party seems to have a clue about any of this.” He accuses Republicans of bashing immigrants and obsessive focus on Prop 13 protection. True enough. But besides calling Democrats names, he repeats a disproven assertion about businesses leaving the state, and ominously yet vaguely accuses the Dems of shadowy “redistribution” and “regulatory excess.” He doesn’t mention what exactly the Democrats have gotten themselves into that’s so awful. Progressive taxation? Support for labor? Support for the environmental protections favored by huge percentages of voters here?
If Mr Kotkin’s political analysis is flawed, his “solutions” are worse: deregulate housing, and give up on creating opportunity for more kids to go to four year colleges. The only thing he gets right is investment in infrastructure, although he doesn’t mention the difficulty of making the case for the tax increases that this investment would require. (The Governor’s solution so far – slap it all on the credit card – makes a certain brutal political sense but isn’t a genuine, sustainable solution) Mr Kotkin also somewhat bizarrely suggests that we’re in danger of losing our port trade volume to Houston and Norfolk, Virgina, both of which are currently still located entirely on the other side of the continent.
To take one example that doesn’t involve a detour around Cape Horn, what of Mr Kotkin’s proposal to deregulate housing. The state is dead last in affordable urban housing, so perhaps this would help. In fact, it would do nothing of the kind. San Francisco is becoming a classic example of deregulation gone horribly wrong. A lot of housing is getting built here, but it is almost to the last unit entirely the wrong stuff: all “luxury,” with 1BR apartments starting at about half a million dollars. The only remotely viable solution is fixing the inclusionary housing ordinance, something the money interests backing Mayor Newsom probably won’t let him do. The untenability of this situation (far more than his personal problems, which at the end of the day most San Franciscans could hardly care less about) has the potential to spark a loss for the Mayor this November.
For more nonsolutions, consider conservative ideologue Senator Tom McClintock’s new project. In the kickoff speech for the organization, he proposes a strategy around (if you’re familiar with his record you’ll never guess what’s coming here) more and louder whining about taxes. Now look again at the biggest problems in the state, according to either Mr Kotkin or CFED. Not a single one of those problems will be fixed by the agenda that either the Senator or Mr Kotkin are pushing.
The pragmatic progressive, high road agenda is truly the only serious, organized effort around to actually fix these problems. Economic democracy through progressive taxation and support for labor and employee ownership. Covering basic needs via a responsive, efficient public sector. Regulating where it’s needed. Building the green economy. Creating opportunity by innovating and by investing in kids and basic research. And the progressive organizations in this state are the only ones working on increasing civic engagement to budge us off our rock bottom 49th in voting.
As Einstein put it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is the essence of progressivism: taking the intellectuals, public servants, activists and citizens that are serious about solving these problems, hooking them together and making change happen. Conservativism may not have started out this way, but it has become alternately about the denial of these real problems, and the putting forward of programs that will in no way address them. Articles and projects like Mr Kotkin’s and Sen McClintock’s are signposts that the conservative historical arc is indeed drawing to a close, and that it will be dead – dead like Communism is dead – in a future that is by no means certain but could be coming very soon.
Update: Steven Johnson puts an artistically thorough smackdown on another gibbering anti-urbanist, David Brooks. And don’t forget the deliberate political ramifications of anti-urbanism.