HomeBudget & Tax NewsThe Battle for California Is the Battle for America

The Battle for California Is the Battle for America

By now, this is a familiar story. California is a failed state. Thanks to years of progressive mismanagement and neglect, the cities are lawless and the forests are burning. Residents pay the highest prices in America for unreliable electricity. Water is rationed. Homes are unaffordable. The public schools are a joke. Freeways are congested and crumbling. And if they’re not still on lockdown or otherwise already destroyed by it, business owners contend with the most hostile regulatory climate in American history.

It is understandable that conservatives in the rest of the United States would be happy to write off California. But California is not writing off the rest of the United States, and therein lies grave danger to American prosperity and freedom.

What if California doesn’t implode, a victim of its own political mismanagement? What if California instead completes its transformation into a successful plutocracy, run by a clique of multi-billionaires in a partnership of convenience with environmentalist extremists and backed by the power of a unionized state bureaucracy?

What if the people who would resist this tyranny leave, and the remaining population peacefully accepts universal basic income and subsidized housing? What if all it takes to be a feudal overlord in progressive California is to proffer to the proletarians a pittance of alms, while reliably spouting incessant, blistering social justice and climate change rhetoric?

Why won’t that work? After all, it’s worked so far. California has the most progressive electorate in America.

Not because of California’s regulatory state, but in spite of it, California is by far the wealthiest, most influential state in America. With 40 million people, a diverse economy, and a gross domestic product of $3.2 trillion, California is almost a nation unto itself. And the progressive zealots who run California have been acting like an independent nation, with the avowed goal of transforming the entire United States to match its image.

What happens in California matters to the rest of the United States because California’s internal market is huge, its political and financial influence is powerful, and it rallies political allies throughout the U.S. If what California does to transform its own culture and economy isn’t stopped, the rest of the U.S. will fall into line. The result will be a comprehensive reinvention of society in all areas, political, economic, and cultural.

The difficult reality that conservative Americans must accept is that while California may be a failed state by the standards Middle America has come to take for granted, California may not fail by its own standards. The society California is building may prove viable, even if it is hideous to contemplate and morally wrong. It may prove viable even though the alternatives that it displaces offer more prosperity and freedom to more people. It amounts to an all-powerful tech plutocracy ruling over a micro-managed, dependent population, with rationing and redistribution in the name of social justice and saving the planet.

This model, which is a modern form of feudalism, may work not merely because it is politically and economically sustainable despite its many shortcomings, nor merely because it offers more power and profit to its handful of resident billionaires who already possess obscene levels of power and wealth. These reasons don’t fully explain the popularity of progressive feudalism. There is one more piece in the puzzle.

The progressive model also becomes viable because of a moral narrative that is flawed but nonetheless compelling: We live in an inherently oppressive society, so we must reduce the privileged middle class in the interests of social justice. We live in an era of limited resources and a stressed planet, so we must reduce everyone’s standard of living. Countering that narrative is the mission that must be sent into California. The misery that Californians have condemned themselves to live is not a moral choice. They are victims of a con job.

What follows are detailed examples of what’s happening in California. These examples are selected based on the level of transformative impact they are having, as well as their potential to be rolled into the rest of the United States. But this compendium, while lengthy, only scratches the surface.

The Labor Movement is the Glue

At the forefront of California’s populist progressive movement is organized labor. Assimilating the progressive battle cries on all the predictable topics—race, gender, climate change—California’s labor movement wields both their billions in dues revenue and a perpetually mobilized field army that reaches into every locale and institution. And in a major escalation of a battle soon to rage across America, California’s unions have taken on independent contractors.

Sailing through the state legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2019, AB 5 outlawed most forms of individual independent contracting and threw most of the rest into legal ambiguity. While aimed at rideshare drivers on Uber and Lyft platforms, it affected all businesses that use independent contractors, from nail salons and graphic artists to thousands of badly needed nurses and other health care professionals.

The most powerful injured parties, led by Uber and Lyft, have funded a ballot initiative that will repeal AB 5 for their specific industries. But small businesses, including sole proprietors, are out of luck. The move to ban independent contractors has now gone national, with Biden and Harris endorsing the policy. The Biden campaign is even running ads against the Uber and Lyft-backed ballot proposition: “Now, gig economy giants are trying to gut the law and exempt their workers. It’s unacceptable.”

The consequences of outlawing most forms of independent contracting are obvious, and disgraceful. Within realistic constraints, people should be allowed to exchange services for money without having to become employees of a company. That such a basic expression of freedom should come under attack illustrates the gravity of the fight we’re in. The motivation for this law is equally obvious and disgraceful; if people can be herded into companies as employees, then they can be organized and put under union representation.

It’s worth reexamining exactly what unions in California represent, rather than leaving it at that. California’s unions exist primarily in the public sector, where their “negotiations” are with politicians whose campaigns they’ve bankrolled, and their wage and benefit demands are paid for by taxes, not by businesses operating in a competitive environment.

And while unions may still play a vital role in the private sector, it’s fair to wonder why their political agenda—open borders in particular—is a goal that is shared by the tech billionaires and corporations these unions supposedly oppose. Why the contradiction?

The answers to this help explain the alliance between corporations and unions which, on the surface, seems contradictory.

First, the center of gravity of union power in the United States—and this is especially the case in California—now rests with the public sector. And why wouldn’t public sector unions want open borders, and moreover, why wouldn’t they want unrestricted immigration with no regard for the ability of immigrants to speak English, bring useful skills, and assimilate? The more numerous and dependent America’s immigrants are, the more numerous and expansive the roster of government employees necessary to assist them in their new country.

The public schools of Los Angeles, to cite an obvious example, receive revenue based on how many students are enrolled. The more immigrants arrive, the more revenue these school districts collect, and the more unionized, dues-paying members of the teachers’ union have to be hired. If these students have had poor education in the nations they are arriving from, and if these students lack English language skills, then the public schools of Los Angeles will qualify to collect even more revenue, and hire even more specialized staff, in order to better assist the special needs of these students.

In most areas of public service, the more dependent and difficult to assimilate immigrants are, the more public services required: social workers, welfare administrators, police, probation officers, translators, and assorted bureaucrats. More generally, the more the population grows through immigration, the more government will grow, benefitting government unions. Population growth, of course, also fulfills corporate objectives, expanding the labor force and driving down wages.

Less acknowledged but perhaps even more significant, a larger population simply creates a larger critical mass of consumers. In the broadest, most macroeconomic sense of the term, a “consumer” is any living resident of a nation, even someone totally dependent on the government. They still require food, medical care, and shelter. They still buy products, and someone—a private-sector government contractor as often as a government agency—will be remunerated to fill those requirements.

This still doesn’t explain why private-sector unions would favor open borders, but here ideology and opportunism align synergistically to provide the answer. On one hand, the leftist narrative of anti-racism, replacing the oppressors, displacing and overthrowing the colonizers, etc., provides an ideological rationale for even private-sector unions to agitate for open borders.

And the internationalist perspective of these union leaders, where increasingly their concern is not for the American worker, but for the “workers of the world,” also gives them cover to call for open borders even though that increases the supply of labor and drives down wages. Many of them simply don’t understand the realities of supply and demand and are fully committed to an economic dream of socialist redistribution, but for those who do recognize economic reality, there is another more practical motive: the worse off the workers are in their bargaining units and in the economy generally, the more likely they’ll be to join a union in an attempt to better their circumstances.

In any case, by far the most powerful unions in California are public-sector unions, for which policy and program failures constitute success, because to address the failures, they can agitate for more policies and more programs. This agenda is playing out in Democratic cities and states across America.

Unionizing Police and Firefighters

California’s state legislature doesn’t have to do anything to unionize public employees including police and firefighters, that’s already an established fact. But if Californian Democrats have anything to say about it, unionized public safety is coming to America. California’s 45 Democrats in the U.S. Congress, by far the most numerous and influential coalition of Democrats from any state, have introduced federal legislation to that effect.

Legislation to unionize public safety, misleadingly dubbed the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, HR 1154, authored by Los Angeles-area Representative Karen Bass and co-sponsored by 201 other Democratic representatives (including all of California’s Democratic House members), would impose exclusive California-style collective bargaining for police and emergency services to the roughly 20 states that don’t already have it.

The consequences of unionized law enforcement and firefighting are many and dire. Every year these unions will collect hundreds of millions in dues, and they will use a significant percentage of that money on political spending to flip battleground states from purple to blue. This bill would also require union bargaining over police officers’ wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment, increasing costs to taxpayers.

These costs are not trivial. Police and firefighter pay and benefits are breaking the budgets of cities and counties across California. The average sheriff in a California county in 2019 earned pay and benefits of $158,000. That’s average, and that’s on the low side compared to other categories of public safety. For example, on average, a police officer in a California city in 2019 earned pay and benefits of $176,000. And firefighters earned, on average, much more: In California’s counties in 2019, $214,000; in California cities, also $214,000.

These averages, if anything, are understating the reality, insofar as they don’t take into account the increased costs of prefunding their pension benefits if there isn’t another bull market, nor do they take into account the full cost of prefunding their retirement health care. Most reasonable people agree that it is very important to support police and firefighters, and to pay them well. But these averages are so high they are often met with disbelief. They are unaffordable, compromising the ability to maintain adequate forces, and taking funding away from other vital public services. They are a direct result of unionization.

And if unionizing is not to save money, since clearly the opposite has happened, then what is the motivation? In contrast to Democrats’ stated aims, unionizing police departments per this legislation would exacerbate systemic police violence, by protecting bad cops from accountability. So why support it? Because government unions want it. Passing the bill allows Democrats to expand the revenue of the unions that quietly fund their campaigns.

Environmentalist Extremism

In 2006, California passed AB 32, the “Global Warming Solutions Act.” Signed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, AB 32 empowered the unelected bureaucrats on California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) to regulate CO2 emissions in California with the goal of reducing them to 1990 levels by 2020. Since the passage of AB 32 there has been an unceasing flow of follow-on legislation, executive orders, and CARB regulations. To name just a few:

In 2008 California’s Public Utilities Commission released their “Long-Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan, which, among other things, requires all new residential construction to be “zero net energy” (ZNE) staring in 2020, all new commercial construction to be ZNE by 2030, and 50 percent of all commercial buildings to be ZNE by 2030.

SB 350 in 2015 requires California to generate 50 percent of its electricity from “renewables” by 2050, with emissions-free nuclear power not eligible for inclusion.

More recently, Newsom has ordered CARB to implement the phaseout of new gas powered cars and light trucks by 2045, barely 14 years from now. He also called on the state legislature to ban fracking.

These recent executive orders from Newsom are motivated by the series of cataclysmic wildfires that have again claimed millions of acres of forest in California, wildfires that Newsom alleges were caused by climate change. But the biggest factor by far in causing these wildfires was forest mismanagement, thanks to environmentalist policies pioneered in California.

For decades, California’s foresters and timber harvesters knew the forests were dangerously overgrown. Tree density had progressed in the vast Sierra Nevada from a historical and healthy norm of between 10-50 per acre to upwards of 300 per acre.

While natural fires were suppressed with increasing efficiency, for many years healthy forests were nonetheless maintained by logging and controlled burns. But between 1950 and 2020, California’s timber industry’s annual harvest declined from 6 billion board feet, which maintained an equilibrium between natural growth and annual removals, to less than 1.5 billion board feet.

California’s powerful environmentalist nonprofits, such as the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, used litigation and lobbying—not only within California, but in federal court and the U.S. Congress—to coerce sympathetic judges and legislators to nearly destroy California’s timber industry, at the same time as CARB regulations and other onerous permitting obstacles prevented forest thinning or controlled burns.

When it comes to progressive ideology in general, and California’s environmentalists in particular, irony abounds. Let this sink in: California’s environmentalists destroyed California’s forests. Any attempt to deflect this catastrophe onto climate change is sophistry. Densely packed, tinder dry forests will burn like hell, and that’s exactly what happened. It doesn’t matter one bit if summers are slightly dryer and slightly hotter. They’ll still burn.

Cripple the Housing Industry, Destroy the Suburbs

In all aspects of what Democrats now market as the Green New Deal, California’s state government has led the way. This is vividly expressed in the critical area of zoning for high-density housing, based on the largely unchallenged assumption that suburban sprawl results in higher per capita greenhouse gasses. By cramming nearly all new home construction into the footprint of existing cities, the price of entitled real estate in California has become artificially inflated. But that’s just the beginning of the ordeal facing developers.

Along with higher-priced land, home builders have to contend with costly building codes (such as requiring “zero net energy” homes), excessive fees, and uncertain, prolonged delays in gaining approval to begin construction. The result of California’s restrictive policies is that it has become impossible for unsubsidized developers to build and sell affordable homes.

A key piece of restrictive legislation is SB 375, enacted in 2008, which ties transportation funding to cities and counties adopting higher density residential zoning. A more recent example of the relentless drive towards higher density is SB 743, passed in 2013 but just now being implemented by CARB. This new law requires every new housing development to assess the likely “vehicle miles traveled” by the residents per year, and if that amount is considered excessive, the builders must pay extra fees or in some way “mitigate” for this. Needless to say, this renders the price of homes even more unaffordable.

All these laws being passed in California are designed to increase the density of housing, as well as to mandate home builders move to multi-family dwellings with a percentage of them designated for low-income renters. Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly introduced bills that will supersede local control over zoning to force, for example, fourplex projects to be approved in neighborhoods that currently are for single-family homes.

The entire regulatory ecosystem that has been created not only denies middle-income Californians the ability to purchase homes, or long-standing homeowners the right to preserve the ambiance of their neighborhoods. It also enriches a corrupt class of developers whose business model relies on tax credits and public subsidies to build housing for low-income families and the homeless at a statewide average cost that has now eclipsed $500,000 per apartment unit. At this extraordinary per unit cost, nothing is solved. But the tax-subsidized developers and investors do very well.

And the more money these developers make, the more political influence they have. This is the model for housing that California is exporting to the rest of the United States. Their goal is to eliminate the single-family dwelling altogether, which they justify by characterizing free-standing homes as ecologically unsustainable and disproportionately allocated to people with unwarranted privilege based on the color of their skin.

Through all of these examples of progressive feudalism that California is perfecting even as they export them to the rest of America, the same themes apply. Reduce consumption. Ration energy and water. Ration the supply of available land for construction. Reduce the privileged middle class, in this case by transforming their suburbs into high-density neighborhoods with abundant subsidized housing. Justify all of it in the name of saving the planet and social justice.

Make Basic Necessities Unaffordable

The consequence of California’s excessive, environmentalist-inspired policies is to make the state unaffordable. It comes from a fundamental worldview that California uses all of its cultural influence to reinforce in America and across the globe: Austerity is necessary to save the planet. This goes all the way back to Jerry Brown’s “era of limits” philosophy which he promoted during his first terms as governor back in the 1970s.

The basic necessities of life—housing, transportation, energy, and water—cost more in California than anywhere else in America. This is because of artificially imposed scarcity, a choice that is entirely avoidable. Along with making it impossible to profitably build affordable market housing, California no longer makes significant public investments in energy, water, or transportation infrastructure—preferring instead to redirect available funds to public employee pay and benefits. They justify this by claiming they are protecting the environment, but the real winners are the special interests.

The fully co-opted, unionized public sector is a primary beneficiary of a hyper-regulated state where everything costs more than it should. Stratospheric home values translate directly into higher property tax receipts. Elevated utility and telecommunications prices to the consumer enable higher returns from the hidden taxes and fees embedded in the monthly billings. Public employee pension funds benefit when their real estate portfolios soar in value.

Also benefiting from artificial scarcity are landowners, established corporations, public utilities, and investment funds, all of which realize higher profits and returns when competitors are shut out and captive consumers bid up prices on limited supplies. Public utilities offer a particularly pernicious example of how artificial scarcity elevates profit. The profits these regulated utilities can earn are limited to a percentage of their revenues. But when expensive renewable energy is delivered on this cost-plus basis to the consumer, they can sell the same or even fewer kilowatt-hours for far more revenue. Since they are allocated a fixed percentage of their revenue for profit, higher revenue always means higher profits.

This philosophy of limits and austerity, pioneered in California and pushed relentlessly into the culture, is as dangerous to the prospects of ordinary Americans in the rest of the country as the actual policies enacted by California’s politicians.

The blessings of capitalism, where competitive development and innovation yield ongoing and broadly distributed prosperity, are assigned no credibility in California. They are discredited as harming the planet and inherently racist, in a stunning inversion of logic promulgated as much by high-tech billionaires as by the zealous millennials emerging from California’s K-12 system of public school indoctrination. Which brings us to public education.

Destroy Public Education

There is one area where California’s influence is felt every election cycle in the rest of the United States, and it comes courtesy of California’s unionized public education system. California’s public employee unions collect and spend over $900 million per year, mostly from member dues. More than half of that, nearly a half-billion per year, comes from public education unions, chief among them the California Teachers Association.

The leadership of these unions are willing to spend hundreds of millions every election cycle to support Democratic candidates and causes. Everywhere. With California’s cities and counties and school boards almost universally dominated by California Teachers Association-approved Democrats, along with both houses of the state legislature and all higher state elected offices, the teachers’ unions have money to burn in the rest of the United States. And that’s exactly what they do, sending out millions to swing close elections to the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and state offices around the country.

Where there’s money for politics, there’s the political clout to completely dominate California’s school system. Thanks to the influence of the teachers’ union, state laws are slowly squeezing charter schools out of existence, with a rising assault on homeschoolers only deferred by the COVID-19 school shutdowns.

Thanks to the teachers’ unions in California, the work rules that prevent teacher accountability and school accountability are already well-established law. Attempting to fire a teacher, or retain the best teachers in layoffs, or even to extend the period of time before a teacher gains tenure and has a job for life, are all rendered nearly impossible in California.

The ways teachers’ unions have used their power to affect the curriculum of California’s public schools are well documented. Most notably, the recent mandate to implement “gender studies” instruction across all age groups that borders on pornographic. Still pending, the mandate to require “ethnic studies” courses as a prerequisite for high-school graduation—something that would have already become law, except the various “stakeholders” haven’t yet agreed on which victimized groups would occupy which positions on the victim hierarchy.

In general, California’s teachers’ unions have committed public schools to a pedagogy that indoctrinates students with their own political ideology. America is a flawed nation founded on racism. White men are oppressors. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. Socialism is the only path to social justice and environmental health.

The impact of the teachers’ unions to reinforce and catalyze California’s socialist vision for America and the world cannot be overstated. Year after year, their money pours over the Sierra Nevada to decisively influence countless political races in the rest of the nation. The national teachers’ unions that lobby for similar curricula around America are dominated by the California leadership and California’s dues revenue.

For over a generation, students thoroughly steeped in socialist ideology have graduated from California’s K-12 schools. As graduates of this indoctrination, they have spread into every state, from the streets of Portland and Seattle to the precincts of Allegheny County. They staff HR departments and activist nonprofits. They are code warriors and social media influencers. The teachers’ unions of California have done their job well. Their proteges are everywhere.

Foment Identity Group Tension

Fundamental to California’s progressive culture is the deconstruction of meritocracy. It’s all an illusion, of course. No start-up that aspires to be Google or Facebook’s next unicorn acquisition expects to achieve such glory by hiring incompetent programmers. But the institutional drive towards erasing colorblind, genderblind criteria has progressed further in California than anywhere else in the United States. For any corporation still doing business in California, these policies have enterprise-wide impact.

Just last month, for example, Newsom signed AB 979, which requires publicly traded corporations to “appoint directors from underrepresented communities to their boards.” A close reading of this law reveals the brazen, punitive arrogance of California’s Democrats, exemplified by the announced fine of $100,000 merely for “failure to timely file board member information with the Secretary of State.”

A tactic of the Left, perfected in California, is to measure aggregate group achievement, by ethnicity or by gender, and then to ascribe all variation between groups either to racism or sexism. And to the argument that perhaps there are factors related to competence, qualifications, and merit, rather than racism or sexism alone explaining these disparities, the response has been to eliminate those factors as official evaluation criteria, or even as subjects we are allowed to discuss.

Why else is it that the regents of the University of California, yielding to pressure from the state legislature, have eliminated the use of the SAT and ACT tests as a method to evaluate college applicants? Why is it that California is lowering the score required to pass the bar exam and become a licensed attorney?

All of these steps and more are being pioneered in California. In November, California voters will even have the opportunity to bring back affirmative action, which would restore the explicitly racist (and sexist) requirement for public and private institutions to achieve proportional representation by race and gender in admissions, hiring, pay, and promotions. Where does this end?

It doesn’t end there. Governor Newsom has just signed another bill, AB 3070, which will “establish a first-in-the-nation task force to study and make recommendations on reparations for slavery.” Critics have suggested this is just Newsom’s way to position himself to run for president in 2024 or 2028. Maybe. And he could win. But meanwhile, given their record to-date, there is no evidence whatsoever that California’s state legislature would not enact a reparations bill.

As part of their relentless, intrepid quest for social justice, California’s woke Democrats are not just trailblazing quotas, affirmative action, and reparations and exporting them across the United States—another pioneering innovation is to declare racism to be a public health emergency. This notion gained national traction in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but it was already being pushed by health providers in California.

Which brings us to California’s excessive attention to public health, to the point of absurdity and beyond.

Health and Safety Mandates 

The COVID-19 lockdowns may have grabbed the headlines, but California has been going off the deep end in pursuit of health and safety for decades. A good example is Proposition 65, the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act,” sold to voters in 1986. This is the California law responsible for cancer-warning signs so ubiquitous that most Californians know it’s better just to ignore them.

In bars and restaurants, on playground equipment, shoes, umbrellas, and golf club covers, even around Disneyland, consumers are warned that a product served on the premises—even the place itself—“is known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm.”

While most Californians have gotten used to these warning labels, they are no laughing matter. They expose small businesses to ruinous lawsuits. Prop. 65 is often out of step with scientific consensus because it draws from a reference list of nearly 1,000 chemicals, chosen if, according to state regulators, they could cause “one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed to the chemical over a 70-year lifetime.” But with criteria like that, everything causes cancer.

Like so many regulations, the biggest victims of Prop. 65 are small businesses. Prop. 65 deputizes private trial lawyers to search for evidence of noncompliance. Small businesses, which generally don’t have the resources to fight costly legal battles, are often compelled to settle. Because the penalties for “failure to warn” are so steep, businesses paid $35 million in Prop. 65 settlements in 2018, with more than three-quarters of this total going to attorney fees. Some lawyers who specialize in this area take home more than $1 million in fees per year.

The federal government is the only backstop against a law so broad that it applies to products produced anywhere in the world and that are sold in California. In August 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the unprecedented step of issuing guidance stating it won’t approve of Prop. 65’s “false labeling” on the weedkiller Roundup because the science doesn’t support it. EPA didn’t mince words: “It is irresponsible to require labels on products that are inaccurate when EPA knows the product does not pose a cancer risk,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “We will not allow California’s flawed program to dictate federal policy.”

This federal action against Prop. 65 came on the heels of a long-sought exemption for coffee in June. This about-face was the result of outrage from coffeemakers, drinkers, and even scientists who demonstrated that coffee was not a cancer risk. Another federal agency—the Food and Drug Administration—threatened to “step in” if the state went ahead with Prop. 65 labels for coffee. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb explained that these “could mislead consumers to believe that drinking coffee could be dangerous to their health when it actually could provide health benefits.” Imagine a White House in the hands of someone more favorably disposed to California’s global ambitions.


This is an excerpt from an article originally posted on American Greatness. View the second part here. Republished with permission.

Edward Ring
Edward Ring
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets. Ring's undergraduate degree is in Political Science from UC Davis, and he has an MBA in Finance from USC.



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