Tag Archive for: post-pandemic

California’s Economy is Weaker Than it Looks

Whisper it, but the $45 billion surplus Gavin Newsom has projected for California next year isn’t quite what it seems. In fact, the bulk of that surplus is largely due to the earnings of a few giants such as Google, Apple and Meta (formerly Facebook), as well as a handful of IPOs.

This inconvenient truth hasn’t stopped the Governor from proposing a record-high $286.4 billion budget that will focus on education, health spending for undocumented residents, and expanding the state’s already massive social spend.

Indeed, even with a surplus, the state legislature seems determined not to lower taxes but to raise them. Newsom plans to implement a single payer health care system funded by massive new taxes on business and higher income revenues, raising what is already the nation’s highest rate. On top of that, the legislature seems ready to impose other wealth taxes on the very rich who keep the state afloat.

Yet the reliance on the elites — the 1% who account for half the state’s income tax — could prove troubling once the current stock market boom ends, and the IPO picture darkens. The state tax and regulatory regime has already kneecapped most other sectors of the economy, including both blue collar industries like manufacturing, energy and construction. And much of this has been accelerated by a growing exodus of companies, including such iconic firms as Tesla, Oracle, HP Enterprises, Charles Schwab, Bechtel, Parsons Engineering, and others. Meta has reportedly purchased thirty-three floors in an Austin high rise.

Despite professing to be the start-up capital of America, California’s leaders simply ignore or dismiss any notion of economic peril. But the reality is stark: this is a state that suffers the country’s highest cost-of-living adjusted poverty rate, the largest gap between the middle class and the rich, among the most crowded housing, and the second lowest homeownership rate. Post-pandemic it also has the nation’s highest unemployment rate.

These facts are rarely discussed in the predictably pro-Newsom media. The party line is that such attacks reflect the political bias of Right wing “haters”. Yet what California needs is not media or academic shills, but a willingness to confront the state’s emerging neo-feudal structure that, amid unprecedented wealth, has done little for most residents. Only a course correction, and change of consciousness, can restore the state to its former greatness.

This piece first appeared at UnHerd.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Feudal Future Podcast – The Metaverse Explained

On this episode of Feudal Future, hosts Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky are joined by American entrepreneur, Rony Abovitz, and Charlie Fink, AR/VR consultant and professor of Chapman University to discuss the metaverse and what the future holds in a digital world.

California is a Bastion of Innovation Marred by Deep Inequality. Is That America’s Future?

Everyone seems to be California dreaming these days. Much of America, particularly its red parts, see California as a hopeless dystopia best understood as everything the nation should avoid. Meanwhile, for the progressive Left and many around Joe Biden, California is the Mecca, a great role model being attacked by jealous reactionaries.

As in so many cases, both sides have a piece of the truth.

To be sure, despite the many well-documented problems, California still has an impressive economy that will shape the country’s and the world’s economic future—through the entertainment, space, critical software and social media industries and international trade. A spirit of experimentation and innovation persists across the state and fuels this industriousness.

Sadly, along with new technical and cultural innovations, the everyday reality outside the glamor zone presents a prospect as cautionary as it is aspirational, a harbinger of innovation marred by massive social inequality.

For the parade of startups and youthful billionaires coexists with the country’s highest cost-of-living adjusted poverty rate, the largest gap between the middle class and the rich, the most crowded housing and second lowest homeownership rate.

California once projected the essence of our common national dream. Today, its leaders increasingly see it as a kind of post-America, with its own racial, gender and environmental standards. It’s an approach welcome in Malibu or Palo Alto, but most Californians are left coping with the nation’s worst homeless crisis and rising crime. A ride on Highway 33 through the impoverished expanses of the Central Valley reveals a vast and bleak landscape of abandoned cars, dilapidated houses and threadbare shops.

The pandemic has accelerated California’s class divide, vastly enriching the tech elite and financial oligarchs but leaving California with the nation’s highest unemployment rate and making it the second hardest place to find a job.

Silicon Valley was once among the most egalitarian regions in the nation; today, as it has become more aggressively woke and taken to massively funding progressive Democrats, it has become one of the most segregated places in the country, what CityLab has described as “a region of segregated innovation.”

Times may be flush for venture capitalists and serial tech entrepreneurs, but they’re not so great for those who clean their own buildings and work in the food service industry. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private financial assistance. African Americans and Latinos have seen declines in real incomes. The one percent pay roughly half of the state’s income tax and windfalls from IPOs fund the state’s ultra-generous pensions and an ever expanding welfare state—and yet, none of this creates good jobs.

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Class War is Just Beginning

With the seeming deconstruction of the Biden Administration proceeding at a rapid clip, many on the right hope for an end to the conscious stoking of class resentments that has characterized progressive politics. Yet despite the political meltdown, America’s class divides have become so wide, and so bitter, that Biden’s presidency may prove more a prelude than a denouement for the future of class warfare.

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Welcome to the End of Democracy

We bemoan autocracies in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China but largely ignore the more subtle authoritarian trend in the West. Don’t expect a crudely effective dictatorship out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: we may remain, as we are now, nominally democratic, but be ruled by a technocratic class empowered by greater powers of surveillance than those enjoyed by even the nosiest of dictatorships.

The new autocracy rises from a relentless economic concentration which has engendered a new and fabulously wealthy elite. Five years ago, around four hundred billionaires owned as much as half of the world’s assets. Today, only one hundred billionaires own that share, and Oxfam reduces that number to a mere twenty-six. In avowedly socialist China, the top one percent of the population holds about one-third of the country’s wealth, up from 20 percent two decades ago. Since 1978, China’s Gini coefficient, which measures inequality of wealth distribution, has tripled.

An OECD report issued before the Covid pandemic finds that almost everywhere, the non-rich share of national wealth has declined. These trends can be seen even in social democracies like Sweden and Germany. In the United States, as the conservative economist John Michaelson put it succinctly in 2018, the economic legacy of the last decade is “excessive corporate consolidation, a massive transfer of wealth to the top 1 percent from the middle class.”

This process has developed both in the tangible and digital economies. In Great Britain, where land prices have risen dramatically over the past decade, less than one percent of the population owns half of all the land. On the European continent overall, farmland has fallen increasingly into the hands of a small cadre of corporate owners and the mega-wealthy. In America, the largest farmland holder is Bill Gates, with over 200,000 acres, while Ted Turner and John Malone preside over lordly estates of over two million acres each — larger than several American states.

As property has concentrated, small-holders have come under increased pressure. Australia historically has enjoyed high rates of homeownership, but the rate among twenty-five to thirty-four year-olds dropped from more than 60 percent in 1981 to only 45 percent in 2016. The proportion of owner-occupied housing in once-egalitarian Australia has dropped by 10 percent in the last twenty-five years. Morgan Stanley predicts that the US will soon become primarily a “rentership society” where Wall Street firms seek to turn homes, furniture and other necessities into rental products.

The digital economy is similarly dominated by a small group of giant firms. These overlords together exercise control of up to 90 percent of critical markets such as basic computer operating systems, social media, online search advertising and book sales. No longer satisfied with controlling the pipelines, the tech oligarchy increasing buys up old news outlets and “curates” the news to its tastes. It increasingly dominates mainstream entertainment too: the pending sale of MGM to Amazon is just the most recent example of its conquest and consolidation of the means of communication.

Like the barbarian princes who shaped the Middle Ages, the new oligarchs have been able to seize their fiefdoms with little resistance from weak central governments. The pandemic accelerated this process; its lockdowns and restraints on mobility proved a bonanza for tech companies like Google, whose profits doubled during the period. In this highly regulated environment, the tech-rich have simply gotten richer: seven of the ten richest Americans come from the tech sector. Apple, by some calculations, is now worth more than the entire oil and gas industry. The already obscenely rich have become richer still. Jeff Bezos alone saw his net worth jump by an estimated $34.6 billion in the first two months of the pandemic, while his company has enjoyed continued revenue and profit growth.

As executive compensation reached the stratosphere in Big Tech and finance, small businesses face what the Harvard Business Review calls “an existential threat.” Experts now warn that one third of small businesses, which comprise the majority of US companies and employ nearly half of all workers, could ultimately shut down for good. Hundreds of thousands have already disappeared, including nearly half of all black-owned businesses. Particularly damaged have been the small merchants along Main Street and those working for them, such as restaurant and hospitality workers.

Read the rest of this piece at The Spectator World.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Chris Devers, via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Feudal Future Podcast – Restoring the California Dream

Joel and Marshall discuss how we can restore the California dream, stopping the outflow of millennials and families headed for states that now offer better opportunity than California.

Feudal Future Podcast – Cities of the Future

On this episode of Feudal Future, hosts Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky talk with Cullum Clark and Austin Williams about the future of cities and what it will take to build the new world.

Own Nothing and Love It

From the ancient world to modern times, the class of small property owners have constituted the sine qua non of democratic self-government. But today this class is under attack by what Aristotle described as an oligarchia, an unelected power elite that controls the political economy for its own purposes. In contrast, the rise of small holders were critical to the re-emergence and growth of democracy first in the Netherlands, followed by North America, Australia, and much of Europe.

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Slow Boat from China

To some in the Biden Administration, the supply chain crisis can be dismissed as a loss of East Asian-made consumer trinkets that, as Vox tells us, we could all be better off without—or as White House spokesperson Jen Psaki suggested, amounts to little more than “the tragedy of the delayed treadmill.” Yet, in reality, a broken supply chain is hardly a rich man’s problem—global bankers are having their best year ever—but mostly impacts ordinary folks suffering from rising prices for everything from soybeans to natural gas. The crisis is now expected to last for at least a year.

The chaos on the ground level may not much hurt the elites of Manhattan or Palo Alto, but inflation, which is now expected to continue apace for at least the next year, has wiped out wage gains in the U.S., the UK, and Germany. Low-income groups are the most threatened, struggling to pay energy costs, surging rents, and higher food prices. All this is also eroding President Biden’s already weak poll numbers.

Our vulnerability to supply chain disruption clearly predates the Biden Administration, forged by the abandonment of the production economy over the past 50 years by American business and government, encouraged and applauded by the clerisy of business consultants. The result has been massive trade deficits that now extend to high-tech products, and even components for military goods, many of which are now produced in China. When companies move production abroad, they often follow up by shifting research and development as well. All we are left with is advertising the products, and ringing up the sales, assuming they arrive.

Unable to stock shelves, procure parts, power your home, or even protect your own country without waiting for your ship to come in, Americans are now unusually vulnerable to shipping rates shooting up to ten times higher than before the pandemic. Not surprisingly, pessimism about America’s direction, after a brief improvement Biden’s election, has risen by 20 points. The shipping crisis is now projected to last through 2023.

Not everyone loses here. For years the American establishment saw China as more of an opportunity than a danger. High-tech firms, entertainment companies, and investment banks profit, or hope to, from our dependency, becoming in essence the new “China lobby.” Behind the scenes these representatives of enlightened capital often work to prevent condemnation for the Middle Kingdom’s mercantilist policy, and its joint repression of democracy and ethnic minorities.

After all, the pain is not felt in elite coastal enclaves, but in Youngstown, south Los Angeles, and myriad other decaying locales. Meanwhile, by enabling China’s focus on production, and the conquest of technologies related to making goods, we have devastated  large parts of our country.  This shift has cost us 3.7 million jobs since 2000. Throughout the period between 2004 and 2017, the U.S. share of world manufacturing shrank from 15 to 10 percent, while our reliance on Chinese inputs doubled, even as our dependence on Japan and Germany shrank.

Yet perhaps even more debilitating has been our drift towards what British historian Martin Weiner has called “psychological de-industrialization.” Weiner was referring to the lack of interest in productive enterprise during late Victorian and Edwardian England, but he could just as easily be describing contemporary America’s corporate and financial elite.

Fortunately, America is not England, now a shadow of itself as an industrial country, living off its imperial connections to bolster its media, finance, and tourism sectors. It is a small country, at the edge of a fading continent in seemingly permanent decline. It lacks our vast expanse with its agricultural, energy, and other resources, not to mention our still considerable entrepreneurial spirit. As a huge continental country with enormous resources, lots of arable land and a large, traditionally hard-working population, the United States should be ideally suited to survive the retreat of the global economy, so evident in the supply chain crisis, and be able to shift to a more autarchic model. 

Read the rest of this piece at American Mind.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Don Shall via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.