The rioting that swept Baltimore the past few days, sadly, was no exception, but part of a bigger trend in some of our core cities towards social and economic collapse. Rather than enjoying the much ballyhooed urban “renaissance,” many of these cities are actually in terrible shape, with miserable schools, struggling economies and a large segmented of alienated, mostly minority youths.
Back when integrated circuits were safely ensconced in missiles, spacecraft and machine tools, information technology could take us to the moon or build better cars, but – as long as they didn’t blow us up – they didn’t seem destined to strip away the last of our humanity. But as information technology has emerged as a factor in everyday life, the threat to our autonomy and privacy as individuals has mounted.
What kind of urban future is in the offing for Southern California? Well, if you look at both what planners want and current market trends, here’s the best forecast: congested, with higher prices and an ever more degraded quality of life. As the acerbic author of the “Dr. Housing Bubble” blog puts it, we are looking at becoming “los sardines” with a future marked by both relentless cramming and out-of-sight prices.
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.
“Science,” wrote the University of California’s first President Daniel Coit Gilman, “is the mother of California.” In making this assertion, Gilman was referring mostly to finding ways to overcoming the state’s “peculiar geographical position” so that the state could develop its “undeveloped resources.”
The recent brouhaha over Indiana’s religious freedom law revealed two basic things: the utter stupidity of the Republican Party and the rising power of the emerging tech oligarchy. As the Republicans were once again demonstrating their incomprehension of new social dynamics, the tech elite showed a fine hand by leading the opposition to the Indiana law.
California, our beautiful, resource-rich state, has managed to miss both the recent energy boom and the renaissance of American manufacturing. Hollywood is gradually surrendering its dominion in a war of a thousand cuts and subsidies. California’s poverty rate – adjusted for housing costs – is the nation’s worst, and much of the working class and lower middle class is being forced to the exits. Our recent spate of high-tech growth has created individual fortunes, but few jobs, outside the Bay Area.
On Sunday, Singapore cremates its greatest leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew, architect of its good fortunes. Yet the flames also could extinguish the era of relentless social and economic progress that Lee ushered in during his long, amazingly productive life.
California in 1970 was the American Dream writ large. Its economy was diversified, from aerospace and tech to agriculture, construction and manufacturing, and allowed for millions to achieve a level of prosperity and well-being rarely seen in the world.
Forty-five years later, California still is a land of dreams, but, increasingly, for a smaller group in the society. Silicon Valley, notes a recent Forbes article, is particularly productive in making billionaires’ lists and minting megafortunes faster than anywhere in the country. California’s billionaires, for the most part, epitomize American mythology – largely self-made, young and more than a little arrogant. Many older Californians, those who have held onto their houses, are mining gold of their own, as an ever-more environmentally stringent and density-mad planning regime turns even modest homes into million-dollar-plus properties.
In this age of political Lilliputians, we must acknowledge the passing of giants. Although he ran only a small city-state, Lee Kuan Yew, along with late Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, ranks among Asia’s most pivotal figures of the past 50 years.
In the coming decades, no ethnic group may have more of an economic impact on the local level in the U.S. than Asian-Americans. Asia is now the largest source of legal immigrants to the U.S., constituting 40% of new arrivals in 2013. They are the country’s highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group — their share of the U.S. population has increased from 4.2% in 2000 to 5.6% in 2010, and is expected to reach 8.6% by 2050.
California teachers, politicians and media types like to extoll the benefits of ethnic diversity. Certainly, the state’s racial makeup has changed markedly since 1970, with the white non-Hispanic population now a minority. Some, like state Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, and some education activists now insist that multicultural studies be mandated for the public school curriculum.
In this highly polarized political environment, states and localities, are ever more taking on the character of separate countries. Washington’s gridlock is increasingly matched by decisive, often “go it alone” polices from local authorities. Rather than create a brave, increasingly federalized second New Deal, the Obama years, particularly since the Republicans took control of the House in 2010, have seen discord rise to a level more akin to that left by James Buchanan, the last president before the Civil War, than Franklin Roosevelt.
In this column, we often rate metropolitan areas for their performance over one year, five or at most 10. But measuring economic and social progress often requires a longer lens, spanning decades.
Nowhere is this clearer than in education, which many claim is the key to higher-wage economic growth. Yet there are two sets of numbers that need to be distinguished: those states with the highest percentage of educated workers and the states that have increased their numbers most rapidly.
The millennial generation has had much to endure – a still-poor job market, high housing prices and a generally sour political atmosphere. But perhaps the final indignity has been the tendency for millennials to be spoken for by older generations, notably, well-placed boomers, who often seem to impose their own ideological fantasies, without actually finding out what the younger cohort really wants. The reality, in this case, turns out far different than what is bespoken by others.