Sunday, May 10, 2009

California’s Dead Canary

Another article reminding us that our state is in trouble—in addition to our fires, budget crisis, and water shortages—we are also seeing more people leaving California than are arriving, and that is not a good thing.

These articles are not always pleasant to read, but if we are to be able to respond intelligently to the latest political idea to save the day, we need to become as well-informed as possible.

An excerpt.

“Canaries were used in early coal mines to detect deadly gases, such as methane and carbon monoxide. If the bird was happy and singing, the miners were safe. If the bird died, the air was not safe, and the miners left. The bird served as an early warning system.

“Domestic migration trends play a similar early warning system for states. California’s dynamism was always reflected by its ability to attract newcomers to the state. But today California’s canary is dead.

“Here’s the logic. If net domestic migration is positive, the state’s economy is reasonably sound. Economic growth, taxes, housing, and amenities are strong enough to keep people where they are and attract others. If net domestic migration is negative, it usually means that lack of economic growth, taxes, quality of life, and housing have deteriorated sufficiently to drive people away. This happens despite the inevitable pain of leaving the security and comfort of family, friends, and familiar surroundings.

“California has been a destination for migrating workers and families since 1849. They came form every state and from around the world. Often the migrants faced tremendous challenges and hardship. Illegal immigrants from Mexico and other developing countries still must leap over such barriers. Often, California’s migrants came in waves. The 1850s, 1930s, and 1950s all saw huge surges tied to huge events – the Gold Rush, the Depression and the post-war boom. But even between these waves, California consistently experienced a steady inflow of new immigrants.

“Immigration has been good for California. The new residents brought ambition, skills, and a willingness to take risks. They found a state with abundant natural resources, from oil to rich soil and ample, if sometimes distant water resources. Together with the people already there, they created an economic powerhouse. They built cities with amenities that rival any other. They fed much of the nation and large numbers overseas. They did this while persevering much of California’s unique endowment: the vast coastline, the Sierra Nevada, and the deserts.

“California, with 12 percent of the United States population, became the world’s sixth largest economy while managing to maintain the aura of paradise at the same time. Opportunity and housing were abundant. California was a great place to have a career and raise a family.

“Most recently, though, this has begun to change. California is no longer a preferred destination, at least for domestic migrants. The state’s economy is limping along considerably worse than that of the nation. Opportunity is limited. Housing is relatively expensive, even after the dramatic deflation of the past two years, except for some very hard-hit and generally less attractive inland areas. Taxes are high and increasing. Regulation is onerous and becoming more so. Many California communities are outright hostile to business.

“Consequently, net domestic migration has been negative for 10 of the past fifteen years. International migration to California remains positive, but that reflects more on the weakness of the economies and the attraction of existing ethnic networks than the intrinsic superiority of California. This represents a sea change: anyone predicting it fifteen years ago would have been laughed out of the room.”