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 imminent departure of New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and his replacement by leftist Bill DeBlasio, represents an urban uprising against the Bloombergian “luxury city” and the growing income inequality it represents. Bloomberg epitomized an approach that sought to cater to the rich—most prominently Wall Street—as a means to both finance development growth and collect enough shekels to pay for services needed by the poor.
When I arrived in Los Angeles almost 40 years ago, there was a palpable sense that here, for better or worse, lay the future of America, and even the world. Los Angeles dominated so many areas — film, international trade, fashion, manufacturing, aerospace — that its ascendency seemed assured. Even in terms of the urban form, L.A.’s car-dominated, multipolar configuration was being imitated almost everywhere; it was becoming, as one writer noted, “the original in the Xerox” machine.
Obamacare's first set of victims was predictable: the self-employed and owners of small businesses. Since the bungled launch of the health insurance enrollment system, hundreds of thousands of self-insured people have either had their policies revoked or may find themselves in that situation in the coming months.
With the social media frenzy at a fever pitch, people may be excused for thinking that Silicon Valley is still the main engine for growth in the technology sector. But a close look at employment data over time shows that tech jobs are dispersing beyond the Valley and its much-celebrated urban annex of San Francisco.
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 his classic 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner spoke of “the expansive character of American life.” Even though the frontier was closing, Turner argued, the fundamental nature of Americans was still defined by their incessant probing for “a new field of opportunity.” Turner’s claim held true for at least a century—during that time, the American spirit generated relentless technological improvement, the gradual creation of a mass middle class, and the integration of ever more diverse immigrants into the national narrative.
Despite some hype and a few regional exceptions, the construction of office towers and suburban office parks has not made a significant resurgence in the current recovery. After a century in which office space expanded nationally with every uptick in the economy, we may have reached something close to “peak office” in most markets.
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.
Perhaps nothing is as critical to America’s future as the trajectory of the middle class and improving the prospects for upward mobility. With middle-class incomes stagnant or falling, we need to find a way to generate jobs for Americans who, though eager to work and willing to be trained, lack the credentials required to enter many of the most lucrative professions.
Mid-skilled jobs in areas such as manufacturing, construction and office administration — a category that pays between $14 and $21 an hour — can provide a decent standard of living, particularly if one has a spouse who also works, and even more so if a family lives in a relatively low-cost area. But mid-skilled employment is in secular decline, falling from 25% of the workforce in 1985 to barely 15% today.
Perhaps no urban legend has played as long and loudly as the notion that “empty nesters” are abandoning their dull lives in the suburbs for the excitement of inner city living. This meme has been most recently celebrated in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Both stories, citing research by the real estate brokerage Redfin, maintained that over the last decade a net 1 million boomers (born born between 1945 and 1964) have moved into the city core from the surrounding area. “Aging boomers,” the Post gushed, now “opt for the city life.” It’s enough to warm the cockles of a downtown real-estate speculator’s heart, and perhaps nudge some subsidies from city officials anxious to secure their downtown dreams.
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.”
With Twitter’s high-profile IPO, the media and much of the pundit class are revisiting one of their favorite themes: the superiority of the brash, young urban tech elite, who don’t need to produce much in the way of profits to be showered with investor cash. Libertarians will celebrate the triumph of fast-paced greed and dismiss concerns over equity; progressives may dislike the easy money but will be comforted when much of it ends up supporting their candidates and causes.
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.