The Death of California- Unfinished Essay, January 2019
California with its golden beaches seems to have no trouble believing in itself. Governor Gavin Newsom’s website boasts: California’s values aren’t just a point of pride; they are the very fabric of our state’s history and our future. California has been on the leading edge of change, enacting bold reforms that reflect those values. It is that entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that has allowed California’s diversity to flourish and economy to grow and become one of the largest in the world.
Whilst California feels good about itself for being the progressive state, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (which also accounts for living costs) it has the highest poverty rate out all of the US at a staggering 20.6%. California flutters between fourth and fifth ranked state with highest income inequality, ranked by Gini coefficient. All this, despite having the highest sales and tax rates on the wealthy in the nation, despite per capita state and local spending being the sixth highest, despite the $2.7 trillion CA economy being the fifth largest in the world, bigger than the UK and France.
This poverty and inequality despite having the largest government bureaucracy than any other state, with ~ 900,000 full time state and local government employees and over 2million working in the public sector as of 2014. This poverty and inequality despite those workers being some of the highest paid public officials in the US, earning almost twice as much as those in the private sector (average pay and benefits for full time state/local government employee in CA in 2015 was $121,843, for private was $62,475)
This poverty and inequality despite the highest spending on public welfare programs than any other state, with $958billion spent between 1992 and 2015. CA, which homes only 12% of the US population is where one third of the total US welfare recipients live.
How can a state with all this money, all this public welfare and all of these public officials campaigning for equality and a better standard of living, not actually be making any of it any better?
One problem is for a lot of people, life in California still feels pretty good. CA’s per-capita GDP increased roughly twice as much as the US average over the five years ending in 2016 (12.5% vs 6.27%), as the technology sector has flourished. The true miracle is the fact that California has done so well despite the destructive effects of public policy.
But California has a problem, one which plagues the entire US but is particularly acute here, and that is the problem which I call “empathy politics”. Politics has been reduced to feelings, and voters in California are so wrapped up in their emotional dislike of the current president that they continue to give carte blanche to the fatcats in Sacramento to pursue their misguided (and self-serving) political agendas.
Just as we love to practice performative empathy on social media, so too do we practice performative empathy in politics. It all stems from the same lazy demons. We don’t have the time (or the interest) to dig into the statistics and audit the the decades of bad policy, but do we feel the dopamine reward when we tweet ‘this helps the homeless!’, even if we never take the time to see that the policy only made things worse. It’s hard to tell if we actually want to work on reducing inequality or if we just want to look like a GoodPerson™ for five minutes.
What’s worse, whilst Californians chase digital empathy points in the political social arena, our public officials mirror back to us our desires. They give us what we want, more dramatic empathy, a never-ending cesspit of performative narratives to make us feel like heroes. The poor continue to suffer, our state and local governments continue to get bigger, and our taxes rob us of the possibility to support our own families and communities.
A Stanford GSB paper polled tech CEOs to report that they were wholeheartedly progressive and even wanted to be taxed more. The paper made headlines and reinforced the stereotype of a left leaning Silicon Valley. Unless you take the time to read the (boring) ~ 100 page paper, you wouldn’t know that the poll-takers had no way to guarantee the full anonymity of their results. And at a time when fiscally conservative views are positioned as being heretical within a community, of course tech CEOs need to signal what their employees and customer base expect of them. The paper states that these tech execs would like to be taxed more- if so, how many do you think donate extra to the IRS when they reach the option on their tax forms? I would bet precisely zero. The Stanford paper perfectly captured the essence of performative politics and made false headlines everywhere. It's preference falsification all the way down.
Decades of psychology research show, if it isn’t naturally obvious, that people can and do hold contradictory beliefs across fundamentals. In the same survey a person can answer yes to the question ‘Is wealth disparity bad?’ and yes to ‘Should people be paid more if they work harder?’ despite those questions leading to somewhat contradictory reductive outcomes to our political propagandists. Our views aren’t binary and polls, which reduce complex systems and beliefs to binary answers, multiple choice outcomes or Likert scales, could never capture the complex essence of human epistemology. But this is even worse when it comes to things like public policy. You can both want to solve the homelessness issue in California and think we need to spend less money on the homeless issue directly, as counter-intuitive as we have pretended that perfectly rational answer to be.
Instead of aiming for a well-informed democracy, Newsom and his cronies are championing performative empathy politics, flying the flag for the social issues that allow them to look like heroes, the transgender rights, the debates over abortions in other states, and the long tweet threads about the ‘climate crisis’ without any acknowledgement that the best option might be nuclear (but that sounds ‘bad’). We never see audits on the policies that allowed for such a high poverty rate. Instead we just add more money and time to the things and the people that aren’t working.
What does the future lie in store for the progressive experiment that is California? In my own case, I already feel the force that will push me to move. I expect the exodus will grow. The taxes will get higher, the government will get bigger, the inequality will get larger, but hey, don’t worry- I bet we will all look really good on Twitter.