California's current economic recovery may be uneven at best, but things certainly look better now than the pits-of-hell period in 2008. A cautiously optimistic New York Times piece proclaimed "signs of resurgence," and there was even heady talk in Sacramento of eventually sighting that rarest of birds, a state budget surplus.
Yet such outbreaks of optimism should not blind us to the bigger issue: the long-term secular decline of the state's economy. Whether you believe that the new higher taxes may now slow our growth, as my colleagues at Chapman University now believe, or right the fiscal ship, as is widely hoped in the blue California press, it's more important to look more at the long-term trends, and assess where we stand compared with our domestic competitors.
California, despite its enormous natural and human resources, is losing ground in most basic areas. Its unemployment rate, a still-horrendous 10 percent, stands as the nation's third-highest. This is not a new development or the product of a run of bad luck. The state's unemployment rate has been consistently above the national average for almost all of the past 20 years. Most interior counties, including the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, now suffer unemployment rates well into the double digits, with some approaching 15 percent.
Overall, the state is still down a half-million jobs during the recession. California's losses since its employment peak have been considerably above the national average, some 3 percent, far worse than the 2.3 percent erosion seen nationwide. Despite the modest recent uptick, the California Budget Project projects the state would need to add twice as many jobs per month to fully recover from the recession by the summer of 2015.
Other long-term trends confirm the state's secular decline in competitiveness. Take per capita income – a decent indicator of relative progress. In 1945, journalist John Gunther, writing his famous "Inside USA," gushingly described California "the most spectacular and most diversified American state ... so ripe, golden." At the time, the state boasted the third-highest per capita income in the nation. As late as 1980, the state still ranked fourth. Today, despite Silicon Valley's money machine, California has fallen to 12th and appears headed for further decline.
Despite hopes in Sacramento and in the media, high-tech alone can not bail out the state. The much hoped-for windfall around the time of the Facebook IPO has failed to produce the expected fiscal bonanza for the state treasury. Silicon Valley famously gets nearly half the country's venture capital, but its impact on the rest of the state has diminished. In the 1980s and 1990s, tech booms stretched prosperity throughout its surrounding regions and as far as Sacramento. Now it barely covers half the Bay Area; unemployment in Oakland remains at around 13 percent and one child in three lives in poverty.
Part of this reflects the shift from an industrial high-tech focus to one fixated on software and social media. Given the extraordinary ease with which support and even research operations can be moved, once companies start to grow, they easily head to India, China or over to lower-cost locales like Utah or Texas. "Sure, we are getting half of all the venture capital investment but in the end we have relatively small research and development firms only," observes Jack Stewart, president of the California Technology and Manufacturing Association. "Once they have a product or go to scale, the firms move elsewhere. The other states end up getting most of the middle-class jobs."
This can be seen in the long-term trends in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics-related) jobs. Over the past decade, even with the current bubble, Silicon Valley's STEM employment, according to estimates by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., has increased by a mere 4 percent over the past decade. In contrast, science-based employment jumped 25 percent in Seattle, 20 percent in Houston and 16.8 percent in Austin, Texas.
The tech scene in the Los Angeles Basin is doing even worse. STEM employment in the Los Angeles-Santa Ana area is still stuck below 2002 levels, partially a residue of the continued decline of the region's once-globally dominant aerospace industry. The region, once arguably the world's largest agglomeration of scientists and engineers, has now dipped below the national average in proportion of STEM jobs.
Far greater problems can be seen further down the economic food chain, where many working-class and middle-class Californians traditionally have been employed. The state's heavy industry – traditionally the source of higher-paid blue-collar employment – has missed out on the nation's broad manufacturing resurgence. Over the past 10 years, according to an analysis by the Praxis Strategy Group, California has ranked 45th among the states in terms of heavy metal job creation, losing 126,000 jobs – more than 27 percent; San Francisco-Oakland ranked last among 51 large metropolitan areas. Both Los Angeles-Orange and San Bernardino ranked in the bottom 10.
Despite hype about "green jobs," the immediate prospect for a big manufacturing turnaround is not bright. Because of its high energy costs and other regulatory costs, industrial investment has dried up in California. According to the California Technology and Manufacturing Association, California in 2011 did not even make the top 10 states in terms of new industrial investment, accounting for a paltry 2 percent. This was about one-third or less the share garnered by rivals such as Texas, North Carolina and rebounding "rust belt" states, like Pennsylvania.
Construction, another pillar of higher-paid blue-collar employment, has recovered a bit but remains in worse shape than elsewhere. Overall, the state has lost almost 300,000 construction jobs from the 2007 peak, an almost 40 percent loss compared with 29 percent for the country as a whole.
Even the trade sector, stalwart performer in producing high-wage jobs, may soon be declining. Recent labor disputes by highly paid, politically powerful California port workers – shutting down operations for eight days in Los Angeles and Long Beach – has reinforced the notion that the state's an increasingly unreliable place to do business. After peaking around 2002, our ports are watching growth shift to the Gulf ports, such as Houston, and to the ports of the south Atlantic. The challenge will become far greater once the Panama Canal is widened in 2014 to accommodate larger ships from Asia.
California is also squandering its chance to participate in a potential fourth source of basic employment, the massive expansion in domestic oil-and-gas production. The Golden State sits on potentially the largest gusher in the nation – the Monterey Formation is now estimated to be four times as rich in oil as North Dakota's Bakken Formation. But our green consciousness dictates we don't exploit our resources too much. In the past decade, Texas created some 200,000 generally high-paying energy jobs, while greener-than-thou California has generated barely one-tenth as many.
As a result, wealthier, older, whiter, generally better-educated coastal areas can recover, but the prospects are dismal the further you head into the increasingly Latino, younger and less-educated inland areas. You have flush times for venture capitalists and celebrities, but growing poverty elsewhere. For at least two decades California's poverty rate has remained higher than the national average. Now, notes a new Census estimate, the Golden State has a poverty rate of more than 23 percent, the highest in the country, something unthinkable a generation ago.
Clearly, progressive policies are having socially regressive effects. Over the past few years the state, as a recent Public Policy Institute of California study demonstrates, has become ever substantially more unequal than the rest of the nation. Typical California middle-income workers have seen their median wage, adjusted for inflation, decline 4.5 percent since 2006, and now is at the lowest level since 2008. Only the highest-paid workers have avoided a decline in earnings.
Fortunately, the elements to regain our former broad-based prosperity are still in place. The critical human assets are there: entrepreneurs, hardworking immigrants, top universities. We boast advantages from legacy industries – entertainment and fashion to technology and agriculture. And, perhaps most importantly, California retains its remarkable natural blessings of massive energy resources, fertile soil and a benign climate.
The imperative now is to take fuller advantage of all these blessings in the coming years. Otherwise California will become poorer, more socially bifurcated and relegated by other places to the proverbial "dustbin of history."
This piece first appeared in the Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.