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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.
The recent announcement that Jerry Brown is studying "fracking" in California, suggests that our governor may be waking up to the long-term reality facing our state. It demonstrates that, despite the almost embarrassing praise from East Coast media about his energy and green policies, Brown likely knows full well that the state's current course, to use the most overused term, is simply not politically and economically sustainable.
Whatever President Obama proposes in his State of the Union for the economy, it is likely to fall victim to the predictable Washington gridlock. But a far more significant economic policy debate in America is taking place among the states, and the likely outcome may determine the country’s course in the post-Obama era.
For all of human history, family has underpinned the rise, and decline, of nations. This may also prove true for the United States, as demographics, economics and policies divide the nation into what may be seen as child-friendly and increasingly child-free zones.
Where California falls in this division also may tell us much about our state's future. Indeed, in his semi-triumphalist budget statement, our 74-year-old governor acknowledged California's rapid aging as one of the more looming threats for our still fiscally challenged state.
Only a fool, or perhaps a politician or media pundit, would say California is not in trouble, despite some modest recent improvements in employment and a decline in migration out of the state. Yet the patient, if still very sick, is curable, if the right medicine is taken, followed by the proper change in lifestyle regimen.
It's been nearly 20 years since California Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election by tying his campaign to the anti-illegal immigrant measure Proposition 187. Ads featuring grainy images of presumably young Hispanic males crossing the border energized a largely white electorate terrified of being overwhelmed, financially and socially, by the incoming foreign hordes.
The demographic dilemma facing California today might be better illustrated by pictures of aging hippies with gray ponytails, of legions in wheel-chairs, seeking out the best rest home and unemployed young people on the street corner, watching while middle-age families drive away, seeking to fulfill mundane middle-class dreams in other states.