After spending the late summer in a picturesque town in the Pacific Northwest, I’m eager to get home to California and enjoy the sun and warm weather. But it’s not just the climate that I miss. There is something wonderful about our diverse landscape. The drive past Mount Shasta and into the Central Valley always stirs my heart. And I love the spirit of California, with its diversity of people, cuisine and cultures, as well as its fascinating Gold Rush history.
The state always beckoned me, so much so that when I was offered a job in Orange County in the 1990s, I immediately accepted it and then had to break the news to my shocked wife. Even then, home prices were staggering compared to the rest of the country—an imbalance that only grew worse over the ensuing 25 years as slow-growth regulations took hold and led to a consistent underbuilding of new homes.
I remember thinking about it The Orange County Register‘s ads (remember the ads?) and eventually found a house we could afford. We drove down the street. There were bars on most windows, vague figures hanging around and graffiti on buildings. Despite my wife’s fears that we had traded our serene Midwestern life for a scene from a crime drama, we eventually bought a house, raised three children and settled into the lifestyle.
And it’s a pretty awesome lifestyle. Since then, I have visited all 58 counties in the state and virtually every city and town of any significance. My brain understands why so many friends and neighbors moved to Texas, Arizona and Florida, but my heart does not.
It is time for state policymakers to recognize what is going on and to confront their complicity in the continued emigration of people who, I assume, love the state as much as I do. “California has long beckoned with its coastal beauty and bustle – the magnetic pull of Hollywood, the power of Silicon Valley,” stated a recent New York Times article. “That appeal helped make it a cultural, economic and political force. For 170 years, its growth was constant and its expansion felt limitless.”
The article focused on new population figures: In 2020, California officials expected our population to soon reach 40 million – and they expected another 10 million people in the next decade. When I was born in 1960, California had fewer than 16 million people. When I moved here, it had more than doubled to 33 million – far more than the current total population of my home state of Pennsylvania.
California’s rapid growth has been a pervasive factor in every policy discussion. It went hand in hand with the sense of opportunity that our culture has built. As recently as 2017, the state had added 300,000 people year after year, but the numbers were declining. We were approaching the 40 million mark, but the state was no longer a magnet for other Americans. The growth came mainly from births and immigration.
Lawmakers have dismissed the impact of the California Exodus, in which many Californians — tired of high taxes, unaffordable housing prices, progressive politics and meddlesome regulations — moved to states with laissez-faire policies. After the 2020 census, slowing growth then turned into actual declines. Lawmakers blamed COVID deaths (as if other states hadn’t experienced the same pandemic). Now the downward trend is clear.
According to the Time“The state lost more people than it gained in the past three years, shrinking to fewer than 39 million people. Recent data released by the Treasury Department now offers a stunning prediction: the population could stagnate over the next four decades. Endless growth isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself, but it plays with our self-esteem. I’ve lived in declining cities in the Midwest, and let’s just say optimism is in short supply there.
Unfortunately, this trend is completely self-imposed. I’m not saying our leaders don’t love California either, but their zeal for expanding government, destroying entrepreneurship, and their focus on social engineering at the expense of basic governance has taken its toll.
They’re forgetting an important point: California’s appeal has always been a blank appeal to people who have new ideas and want to escape the stodgy, entrenched attitudes of the states and countries they fled. But you can’t try new ideas in a place where overly powerful bureaucracies crush entrepreneurial ideas and regulate every aspect of our lives.
Population figures show that young, wealthy people are also fleeing California. Older people who own homes and retire tend to stay, but the California Dream was never about turning this place into a giant retirement home. California was a land of limitless opportunity. That is no longer true. Barring any political disruption, I suspect so Time It is true that this means decades of stagnation, despite the inherent wonders of the state.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.