France's Louis XIV: a new model for California's centralizing governance? (Getty Images)By Joel Kotkin
At a time when technology and public opinion should be expanding the boundaries of innovation and self-expression, we appear to be entering a new era of ever greater economic and political centralization, Wendell Cox and I suggest in a new paper.
The trend to a more centralized economy is particularly evident in the information and media sectors, once hotbeds of entrepreneurial opportunity but now dominated by a handful of leviathan firms who gobble up competitors and often control markets at will. This trend is also evident in Washington, which increasingly regulates all aspects of our life, under an unprecedented welter of presidential and regulatory decrees, often bypassing the legislative process.
But nowhere is the centralist leviathan being incubated more than in the once fiercely individualist state of California. President Obama’s centralizing can be at least partially justified by the antics of an obstructionist Congress which has shown little desire to work across party lines. But that’s not the case here in California, which functions largely as a one-party dictatorship of crony business oligarchies, an aloof and arrogant bureaucracy, the green lobby and public-sector unions.
FROM “SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL” TO “L’ÉTAT, C’EST MOI”
In his quirky first term, Jerry Brown was skeptical of central control and an open adherent of the decentralist, “small is beautiful” philosophy of the late British philosopher E.F. Schumaker. Now he seems to be enamored with creating a “coercive state” that would have fit better during the reign of France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV.
California already leads the country in imposing state regulations and laws on everything from gender rights, to cow flatulence, to fair pay, to new licensing requirements for a never-ending panoply of professions. This huge extension of government has already reshaped the cost of such essentials as energy, particularly on the state’s impoverished, heavily Latino interior, and seems likely to escalate already inflated property values to even more absurd levels.
Critical to the California regulatory tsunami is the unraveling of any semblance of local authority. Brown’s bureaucratic phalanx, led by the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Planning and Research, and the California Natural Resources Agency, has recently advocated a new state-directed planning policy that essentially all but prohibits new greenfield development, something generally required for keeping housing costs down.
In the process, the state is poised to seize control of the most basic local functions — such as zoning — potentially under the auspices of new, unelected regional governments that would be as remote from local concerns as the European Union’s increasingly detested autocrats are to many residents of the continent, and, before Brexit, to the United Kingdom.
Another centralizing bill, by Santa Monica Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, would deprive local municipalities of the right to review and oppose high-density projects. This reflects the state’s latest climate-change driven obsession, although such developments are widely opposed in many affected communities in California.
This approach rejects essentially all grassroots solutions to pressing environmental challenges. There is little or no interest in internet-based solutions like dispersed work, or telecommuting — despite the fact that in Southern California more people already now work at home than take transit, according to the recently released American Community Survey data. The problem, perhaps, is that people who work at home don’t hand over big contracts to engineering construction firms or provide the rationale for real estate speculation.
OVER OUR LIVE BODIES?These policy agendas likely do not reflect public opinion or preferences. Most Californians, like their fellow Americans, overwhelmingly prefer local control. And they don’t show much enthusiasm for the dense environments that are being imposed on them. Between 2000 and 2012, population growth in the Los Angeles metropolitan area urban core was all of 9,500 people, while the surrounding inner ring added less than 14,000 residents. In contrast, the suburban and exurban areas added well over 675,000 people.
Ultimately, the attempt to impose state planning amounts to nothing more than social engineering by a centralizing elite who want to change the way most Californians live, including those who continue unashamedly to “live large.”
Centralization is already spawning a backlash, mainly focused on forced densification in communities like Marin County, Los Angeles and Assemblyman Bloom’s Santa Monica, which are as blue as indigo. But community groups, even if well organized, are often no match for the power of regulators, the green lobby and what “The Nation” contributor Zelda Bronstein calls “real estate Democrats.”
In a healthy political culture, such controversial policies would be altered by popular demand. But in one-party California, where the Republican presence is largely vestigial, those hurt by such moves, particularly blue-collar workers and prospective homeowners, are routinely sold out by their representatives, often funded by green billionaires like Tom Steyer. With no organized alternative in one-party California, there is no recourse to punish legislators. Many traditional industries, from energy to homebuilding, which might be expected to speak out, are increasingly powerless or intimidated by the threat of inciting centralized bureaucratic and gubernatorial wrath.
As a result, California, once seen as the fount of innovation and individuality, is beginning to resemble something of a bizarre mix between crony capitalist concentration and taxpayer-funded socialism. The nightmarish consequences could mean the continued ascendency, and not only here, of an ever more centralized and authoritarian state.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).