“California’s New Feudalism Benefits a Few at the Expense of the Multitude”

As late as the 80s, California was democratic in a fundamental sense, a place for outsiders and, increasingly, immigrants—roughly 60 percent of the population was considered middle class. Now, instead of a land of opportunity, California has become increasingly feudal. According to recent census estimates, the state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.

At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country—23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally—worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.

Like medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and doing worse than their parents: native born Latinos actually have shorter lifespans than their parents, according to one recent report. Nor are things expected to get better any time soon. According to a recent Hoover Institution survey, most Californians expect their incomes to stagnate in the coming six months, a sense widely shared among the young, whites, Latinos, females, and the less educated.

Some of these trends can be found nationwide, but they have become pronounced and are metastasizing more quickly in the Golden State. As late as the 80s, the state was about as egalitarian as the rest of the country. Now, for the first time in decades, the middle class is a minority, according to the Public Policy Institute of California….

“The job creation has changed,” says Leslie Parks, a long-time San Jose economic development official. “We used to be the whole food chain and create all sorts of middle class jobs. Now, increasingly, we don’t design the future—we just think about it. That makes some people rich, but not many.”

In the midst of the current Silicon Valley boom, incomes for local Hispanics and African-Americans, who together account for one third of the population, have actually declined—18 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Latinos between 2009 and 2011, prompting one local booster to admit that “Silicon Valley is two valleys. There is a valley of haves, and a valley of have-nots.”

The Geography of Inequality

Geography, caste, and land ownership increasingly distinguish California’s classes from one another. As Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and the wealthier suburbs in the Bay Area have enjoyed steady income growth during the current bubble, much of the state, notes economist Bill Watkins, endures Depression-like conditions, with stretches of poverty more reminiscent of a developing country than the epicenter of advanced capitalism.

Once you get outside the Bay Area, unemployment in many of the state’s largest counties—Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Fresno, and Oakland—soars into the double digits. Indeed, among the 20 American cities with the highest unemployment rates, a remarkable 11 are in California, led by Merced’s mind-boggling 22 percent rate.

This amounts to what conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson has labeled “liberal apartheid,” a sharp divide between a well-heeled, mostly white and Asian population located along the California coast, and a largely poor, heavily Latino working class in the interior. But the class divide is also evident within  the large metro areas, despite their huge concentrations of affluent individuals. Los Angeles, for example, has the third highest rate of inequality of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas, and the Bay Area ranks seventh.

The current surge of California triumphalism, trumpeted mostly by the ruling Democrats and their eastern media allies, seems to ignore the reality faced by residents in many parts of the state. The current surge of wealth among the coastal elites, boosted by rises in property, stock, and other assets, has staved off a much feared state bankruptcy. Yet the the state’s more intractible problems cannot be addressed if growth remains restricted to a handful of favored areas and industries. This will become increasingly clear when, as is inevitable, the current tech and property boom fades, depriving the state of the taxes paid by high income individuals.

The gap between the oligarchic class and everyone else seems increasingly permanent. A critical component of assuring class mobility, California’s once widely admired public schools were recently ranked near the absolute bottom in the country. Think about this: despite the state’s huge tech sector, California eighth graders scored 47th out of the 51 states in science testing. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg and other oligarchs are so anxious to import “techno coolies” from abroad.

As in medieval times, land ownership, particularly along the coast, has become increasingly difficult for those not in the upper class. In 2012, four California markets—San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—ranked as the most unaffordable relative to income in the nation. The impact of these prices falls particularly on the poor. According to the Center for Housing Policy and National Housing Conference, 39 percent of working households in the Los Angeles metropolitan area spend more than half their income on housing, as do 35 percent in the San Francisco metro area—both higher than 31 percent in the New York area and well above the national rate of 24 percent. This is likely to get much worse given that California median housing prices rose 31 percent in the year ending May 2013. In the Bay Area the increase was an amazing 43 percent.

Even skilled workers are affected by these prices. An analysis done for National Core, a major developer of low income housing, found that prices in such areas as Orange County are so high that even a biomedical engineer earning more than $100,000 a year could not afford to buy a home there. This, as well as the unbalanced economy, has weakened California’s hold on aspirational families, something that threatens the very dream that has attracted  millions to the state.

This is a far cry from the 50s and 60s, when California abounded in new owner-occupied single family homes. Historian Sam Bass Warner suggested that this constituted “the glory of Los Angeles and an expression of its design for living.” Yet today the L.A. home ownership rate, like that of New York, stands at about half the national average of 65 percent. This is particularly true among working class and minority households. Atlanta’s African-American home ownership rate is approximately 40 percent above that of San Jose or Los Angeles, and approximately 50 percent higher than San Francisco.

This feudalizing trend is likely to worsen due to draconian land regulations that will put the remaining stock of single family houses ever further out of reach…

Yet except for occasional rumbling from the left, neo-feudalism likely represents the future. Certainly in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit with the intellectual and political skills needed to oversee a neo-feudal society, remains all but unassailable politically. If Brown, or his policies, are to be contested, the challenge will likely come from left-wing activists who find his policies insufficiently supportive of the spending demanded by the clerisy and the serfs or insufficiently zealous in their pursuit of environmental purity.

The economy in California and elsewhere likely will determine the viability of neo-feudalism. If a weaker economy forces state and local government budget cutbacks, there could be a bruising conflict as the various classes fight over diminishing spoils. But it’s perhaps more likely that we will see enough slow growth so that Brown will be able to keep both the clerisy and the serfs sufficiently satisfied. If that is the case, the new feudal system could shape the evolution of the American class structure for decades to come.

via The Daily Beast.