When Growth Grinds to a Halt

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I was born inside a growth machine.

California in 1968 had a population of 19.4 million, double what it was at the end of World War II, which was itself triple what it had been at the end of World War I. My north Long Beach neighborhood was mostly alfalfa fields in the late 1940s; by the end of the ’50s, it was part of the biggest suburban subdivision west of Levittown. The numbers confound the modern mind: 50 tract houses built per day, 107 homes purchased in a single hour, a city that went from zero to 70,000 residents in just three years.

Relentless, exuberant expansion, along with the salesmanship it requires, was baked into everything: sports, politics, real estate, art. Our baseball home team was the Angels, the first Major League Baseball expansion club in 60 years, owned by the “singing cowboy” Gene Autry, a serial media entrepreneur. We lived three miles from the car dealership of Cal Worthington, whose “Go See Cal!” late-night commercials—in which he’d stand on his head until his ears turned red, usually next to his “dog” Spot, who was often a tiger—were so famous that he became a regular on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Worthington, too, had made a separate fortune in radio broadcasting, helping midwife the region’s country-western music scene.

Dynasties were built selling Southern California as the healthy, horizontal, autonomous alternative to the tubercular, vertical, anonymous cramp back east. Places of dubious aesthetic appeal were prettied up with fanciful names like Garden Grove and the Inland Empire. Here was a broad middle class living the dream of homeownership, good-paying aerospace jobs, stylish automotive personalization, and year-round recreation.

Cultural critics may have scoffed at the “booster” class of local ribbon cutters, and Hollywood may have developed an entire lucrative subgenre of films about the noir behind the sunshine, but there was no denying the pervasiveness of the Gold Rush mentality. From its 1848 incorporation, the Golden State grew at a rate at least 2.5 times faster than the rest of the country, right up until 1990. What happened then?

The 1970s and ’80s saw the rise of “slow growth” policies up and down the West Coast. In Santa Barbara, where I first started reporting in the late 1980s, these shackles on new development had predictable results: The local population was cemented at 90,000, tent cities sprang up wherever they were tolerated, and the median home price vaulted toward $1 million. As long as you had bought early, learned to avoid certain neighborhoods, and didn’t mind inward-looking politics, it was a pretty good deal.

This pattern has been repeating itself for three decades now, as the sidewalk shanties bloom and every neighboring state welcomes the U-Haul traffic. The combined population of Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona has nearly doubled from 7.7 million in 1990 to 14.5 million today.

April 2021 brought the shocking if long-predicted news from the U.S. Census Bureau that California, for the first time in its history, would be losing a congressional seat after decennial reapportionment. A delegation-count trend that seemed like it would defy gravity forever— 2-3-4-6-7-8-11-20-23-30-38-43-45-52—instead stalled out in 1990, inching up to 53 for 2000 and 2010 before retreating back to 52.

Like New York, which lost a congressional seat by the narrowest of head-counting margins, California did not lose population from 2010 to 2020—a fact waved around like a battle flag by the sizable left-leaning journalistic corps on both coasts. It merely failed to keep pace with the rest of the country.

But 2020 itself is a different story. As census tabulations received further refinement in May, the unthinkable became reality: For the first time in recorded history, California’s population shrank from one year to another. More than 182,000 people—roughly two Santa Barbaras, or one Rancho Cucamonga—vanished during that COVID-scarred year.

“This is a sea change,” Public Policy Institute of California Senior Fellow Hans Johnson told The New York Times. “Of course there is the asterisk—the effects of the pandemic—but the bigger picture, that California is now a slow-growing state, that’s not going away.”

Because our political conversation tends to be tribal and myopic, much of the discussion of census results centered on immediate partisan winners and losers and competing interpretations thereof. Joining the elite coastal states in the loser column were Rust Belt bleeders Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Gaining were Montana, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas (which picked up two seats). On the crude scale of the 2020 presidential map, that’s a loss of three seats for Team Biden.

But a longer view reveals a more instructive—and cautionary—tale, one worth reflecting on as the country’s overall growth rate slows to levels not seen since the dreary 1930s.

Population trends in the developed world reveal the health of a given polity. The former industrial strongholds of Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis were ranked fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth in U.S. population as recently as 1950; now they are 26th, 31st, 54th, and 69th, respectively. The decline has been devastating to many of the people left behind.

As Japan can testify, treading demographic water also comes with costs. When a previously growth-oriented society goes flat, politics gets crabby and provincial, as people start squabbling over slices of the pie. After California achieved and then rested at 12 percent of the U.S. population in 1990, that stasis launched a new political era of recrimination—first against resource-consuming illegal immigrants, then against the Republicans who had demonized them, then against the money-squandering Gov. Gray Davis (D), then against the union-tweaking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), and now potentially against the pandemic-bungling Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Stasis in America, particularly in states with wealth-generating economic clusters (like Silicon Valley and Hollywood in California or media and finance in New York), is a recipe for homelessness and middle-class flight. Progressive environmental regulations and other restrictions on development, enacted in the spirit of curbing the excesses of runaway growth, send housing costs skyward.

Two mostly external factors are largely responsible for pressing California’s (and New York’s) population numbers down: the Trump administration’s severe cutbacks on legal immigration (many of which only really got started in 2020 and will stretch on into the future) and the pandemic-triggered spike in telecommuting away from office clusters. Yet local policy choices exacerbate both phenomena. Housing unaffordability is a repellant.

That is one reason Texas is alone in gaining two congressional seats after this census. The Lone Star State and Florida, both of which receive a disproportionate amount of policy scorn from coastal elites, have gone from having essentially the same combined population as California in 1990 (29.9 million vs. 29.8 million) to opening up a commanding lead of 50.7 million to 39.5 million. At 2020 rates, Texas will catch California in population by 2035 or so.

This result, appalling as it is to California ears, should be a wake-up call. Those who value the types of culture and commerce created by dynamism should follow the lead of the working and middle classes by seeking it elsewhere.

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