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The recent decision by Occidental Petroleum to move its headquarters to Houston from Los Angeles, where it was founded over a half-century ago, confirms the futility and delusion embodied in California's ultragreen energy policies. By embracing solar and wind as preferred sources of generating power, the state promotes an ever-widening gap between its declining middle- and working-class populations and a smaller, self-satisfied group of environmental campaigners and their corporate backers.
Back in the 1960s, and for well into the 1980s, California stood at the cutting edge of youth culture, the place where trends started and young people clustered. “The California teen, a white, middle-class version of the American dream” raised in a world of “suburbs, cars, and beaches,” notes historian Kirse Granat May, literally shaped the national image of youth, from the Beach Boys and Barbie to Gidget.
A quarter century ago, the Los Angeles-Orange County area seemed on the verge of joining the first tier of global cities. As late as 2009, the veteran journalist James Flanigan could pen a quasiserious book, “Smile Southern California: You're the Center of the Universe,” which maintained that L.A.'s port, diversity and creativity made it the natural center of the 21st century.
California's economy may be on the mend, but prospects for continued growth are severely constrained by the increasing obsolescence of the state's basic infrastructure. Once an unquestioned leader in constructing new roads, water systems, power generation and building our human capital, California is relentlessly slipping behind other states, including some with much lower tax and regulatory burdens.
The indications of California's incipient senility can be found in a host of reports, including a recent one from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the state a “C” grade.
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield (nee Jacob Cohen), whose signature complaint was that he “can't get no respect,” would have fit right in, in the Inland Empire. The vast expanse east of greater Los Angeles has long been castigated as a sprawling, environmental trash heap by planners and pundits, and its largely blue-collar denizens denigrated by some coast-dwellers, including in Orange County, who fret about “909s” – a reference to the IE's area code – crowding their beaches.
Its image further enhanced by the recent IPO of Twitter, Silicon Valley now stands in many minds as the cutting edge of the American future. Some, on both right and left, believe that the Valley's geeks should reform the nation, and the government, in their image.
The public stock offering by Twitter reflects not only the current bubble in social media stocks, but also the continuing shift in both economic and political power away from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area, home to less than one in five state residents. Not since the late 19th century, when San Francisco and its environs dominated the state, has influence been so lopsidedly concentrated in just one region.
In this strange era of self-congratulation in California, it may be seen as poor manners to point out tectonic shifts that could leave the state and, particularly, Southern California, more economically constrained and ever more dependent on asset bubbles, such as in real estate. One of the most important changes on the horizon is the shift of economic power and influence away from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast – the Third Coast – a process hastened by the imminent widening of the Panama Canal.
Historically, progressives were seen as partisans for the people, eager to help the working and middle classes achieve upward mobility even at expense of the ultrarich. But in California, and much of the country, progressivism has morphed into a political movement that, more often than not, effectively squelches the aspirations of the majority, in large part to serve the interests of the wealthiest.
Southern California has always been an invented place. Without a major river, a natural port or even remotely adequate water, the region has always thrived on reinventing itself – from cow town to agricultural hub to oil city, Tinsel Town and the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
Much has been written and spoken about the deep divide between “red” and “blue” America, but the real chasm increasingly is between Washington and the rest of the country. This disconnect may increase as both conservatives and liberals outside the Beltway look with growing disdain upon their “leaders” inside the imperial capital. Indeed, according to Gallup, trust among Americans toward the federal government has sunk to historic lows, regarding both foreign and domestic policy.
The debate over Syria epitomizes this division. For the most part, Washington has been more than willing to entertain another military venture. This includes the Democratic policy establishment. You see notables like Anne Marie Slaughter and the New York Times' Bill Keller join their onetime rivals among the neoconservative right in railing against resurgent “isolationism” on the Right.
The world’s biggest and most dynamic economy derives its strength and resilience from its geographic diversity. Economically, at least, America is not a single country. It is a collection of seven nations and three quasi-independent city-states, each with its own tastes, proclivities, resources and problems. These nations compete with one another – the Great Lakes loses factories to the Southeast, and talent flees the brutal winters and high taxes of the city-state New York for gentler climes – but, more important, they develop synergies, albeit unintentionally.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Southern California was ground zero for the "American Dream" of owning a house. From tony Newport Beach and Bel-Air to the more middle-class suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and Garden Grove to working-class Lakewood, our region created a vast geography of opportunity for prospective homeowners.
Perhaps nothing more illustrates the evolving inner class conflict within the progressive political movement than the recent embrace of California as a role model for the rest of the country. The Golden State, maintains John Judis of the New Republic, should provide the game plan for the Obama administration as it seeks a path back to relevance.
One of Orange County's top executives asked me over lunch recently why Southern California has not seen anything like the kind of tech boom now sweeping large parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. In many ways, it is just one indication of how this region – once seen as the cutting edge of American urbanism – has lost ground not only to its historic northern rival, but also to some venerable East Coast cities, as well as the boom towns of Texas and the recovering metropolitan areas of the Southeast.