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When Will Unions Fight to Lower the Cost of Living?

A report issued earlier this year from California’s Office of Legislative Analyst “California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences,” cites the following statistics:  “Today, an average California home costs $440,000, about two–and–a–half times the average national home price ($180,000). Also, California’s average monthly rent is about $1,240, 50 percent higher than the rest of the country ($840 per month).”

It’s actually much worse than that. Anyone living on California’s urbanized coast, from Marin County to San Diego, has to laugh at the idea that a modest home can be found for anywhere close to $440,000, or a decent rental can be found for anywhere close to $1,240 per month. In most urban areas within 50 miles of the California coast, finding a home or a monthly rental at twice those amounts would be considered a bargain.

These prohibitive costs for housing are mirrored in California’s unusually high costs for electricity, gasoline, water, and, of course, California’s unusually high taxes. The cost of living in California is one of the highest in the nation – along the coast, it’s probably the highest in the nation. For this reason, it’s completely understandable that California’s state and local government unions perpetually agitate for higher pay and benefits for their members. But they’re leaving everyone else behind.

The problem with the oft-repeated mantra “teachers, nurses, police and firefighters need to be able to live in the communities they serve” ought to be obvious. Nobody can afford to live in these communities, unless they’re either very wealthy, or they’re early arrivals whose mortgages are paid off and whose children have graduated from college. Otherwise, if they live on the California coast in a decent home, they’re in debt to their eyeballs.

20151027-UW-SJhomes
These homes with 2,000 square foot interiors and no yard, located in a
remote suburb of San Jose, California, are selling for over $1.0 million each.

This is a failure of policy, and the worst possible response is to exempt public sector workers – the most powerful voting bloc in California – from the consequences of these policies. Because the most enlightened public policies that union leadership might advocate – all unions, public and private – are not to raise pay and benefits for their members, but to lower the cost of living for everyone. And the way to lower the cost of living for everyone is to permit competitive development of land, energy, water and mineral resources.

Along with permitting private interests to compete, California needs to change how public money is invested. California’s biggest infrastructure project in decades is the high speed rail project, which was originally sold to voters as costing $9.5 billion. According to a 10/24/2015 report in the Los Angeles Times, here are the latest projections:

“After cost projections for the train rose to $98 billion in 2011, vociferous public and political outcry forced rail officials to reassess. They cut the budget to $68 billion by eliminating high-speed service between Los Angeles and Anaheim and between San Jose and San Francisco.”

The LA Times report goes on to describe how High Speed Rail is again over-budget. If it’s ever built, it’s likely to cost approximately $100 billion. Using an online mortgage calculator, you will see that a 5.0%, 30 year fully amortized $100 billion loan will require total payments per year from taxpayers of $6.4 billion. That’s over $1,000 per year from each of California’s taxpaying households. Don’t count on ridership revenue to help pay capital costs – it is highly unlikely ridership will even cover operating costs.

The opportunity here, however, is that California’s high speed rail project may never be built. Because one of the conditions of the project is attracting a percentage of matching funds from private investors, and these commitments are not pouring in. Unions who are currently fighting for high speed rail will need to find new projects to support. Regardless of what you may think about unions, as long as they have the political clout they’ve got, their support for new projects could be good, if they modify their criteria.

California’s unions need to support competitive resource development and they need to advocate public/private investment in revenue producing civil infrastructure that passes an honest cost/benefit analysis. These policies would not only lower the cost of living, they would create millions of jobs. The problem with high speed rail isn’t that it doesn’t create jobs, the problem is it destroys more jobs than it creates. High speed rail would be a parasitic economic asset dependent on taxes and subsidies to exist, while not even making a dent in California’s overall transportation challenges.

Unions in California need to return to the core ideals of the labor movement, which is to care about ALL working families. And if they care about those ideals, they will make hard political choices. They will take on California’s super-sized environmentalist lobby, along with their powerful friends, trial lawyers and crony green capitalists. They will challenge the biased studies that claim California cannot solve its land, energy, water and transportation challenges without what is essentially rationing. They will recognize that policies that create artificial scarcity only empower the rich and the privileged. They will participate in a new dialogue aimed at identifying measured and decisive ways to unlock California’s abundant resources; aimed at identifying infrastructure projects that are financially viable enough to attract private investment. They will get out of their comfort zone, confronting old allies, and finding new friends.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions, April 7, 2015

Raise the Minimum Wage, or Lower the Cost of Living?, March 31, 2015

An Economic Win-Win For California – Lower the Cost of Living, December 3, 2014

Reinventing America’s Unions for the 21st Century, September 2, 2014

How to Create Affordable Abundance in California, July 1, 2014

California’s Green Bantustans, May 21, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2014

Pension Funds and the “Asset” Economy, February 18, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Joel Kotkin, January 4, 2014

Bipartisan Solutions for California, October 27, 2013

Strike by Santa Clara County Workers Averted

Everyone should breathe a sigh of relief. Or should they?

Santa Clara County’s nurses, librarians, janitors, dispatchers, and assorted other workers belonging to SEIU Local 521 will not be going on strike after all. At least not yet. Late night negotiations have produced a deal that’s being sent back to the members.

The exact terms of this latest deal are not clear. But according to sources at the San Jose Mercury, the level of pay and benefits was only one of the issues being negotiated. Another key issue was work conditions – in particular, excessive overtime and excessive workloads.

The issue of pay and benefits is directly connected to the issue of overtime and workload, of course, because when employees are paid more than the budget can accommodate, it is impossible to hire more employees. Here is a look at how much key members of this union are making:

Santa Clara County Public Employees
Average Total Compensation by Select Job Title, 2013
20150630-UW-santaclaracomp1

Unfortunately, this data, which comes from the California Office of the State Controller’s “Government Compensation in California” database, has not been updated yet for 2014, so it is possible that the situation has changed. But using these numbers, a few things are immediately apparent:

(1)  These workers are very well paid. The average nurse collects a compensation package worth $183,822 per year. The average janitor collects a compensation package worth $76,309 per year. By comparison, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual earnings for a full-time, year-round civilian employed worker in Santa Clara County in 2013 was $68,586, one of the highest in the nation.

(2)  These workers are not working extreme amounts of overtime. The 2nd to last row on the above table is calculated based on overtime pay, divided by 1.5x (some overtime is paid at 2.0x so this is, if anything, understated), divided by base pay (some overtime rates are calculated on base pay plus other pay, so this is also understated). The group that works the most overtime are the dispatchers, who, in a 40 hour week, on average are turning in an extra 6.0 hours of work. That equates to 72 extra minutes a day, i.e., zilch from the perspective of any start-up entrepreneur.

(3) The cost of pay and benefits are making it difficult to hire more workers. These workers are typically receiving a 2.5% at 55 pension, meaning, for example, if the average nurse retired after 30 years making $128,117 (it would be more than that since that figure represents the average, not the final – again, we’re understating), at age 55 they would get a starting pension of 2.5% times 30 times $128,117 = $96,088, with annual cost-of-living increases, for the rest of their lives. The employer’s health insurance payments, over $15,000 per year, are roughly the same across job categories regardless of average income. This means the benefits overhead for the relatively low paid employees, the janitors, is a staggering 58%. In the case of the nurses, who are the highest paid among these four groups, it is still 28%. For dispatchers, who have to work a measurable amount of overtime, benefits overhead is 42%.

Without having more detailed knowledge of the situation in Santa Clara County, it isn’t fair to indulge in excessive editorializing on this specific case. But the unions who represent Santa Clara county workers, and all government workers, have become accustomed to comparing their rates of pay to each other. In Santa Clara County, the unions representing miscellaneous workers see how much money is going to unionized public safety employees and they become resentful. The public safety unions continuously identify cases where, somewhere, a local government agency is paying their police and firefighters more than they’re making, and they foment resentment that leads to politicians granting pay increases to achieve parity. And the circle goes round and round. And pay goes up and up.

Meanwhile, in the real world of private sector work, the idea of an employer paying $15,000 per year or more to cover an employee’s health insurance plan is almost unheard of. In the world of salaried employment, the idea of working a mere 40 hour week (and accruing 4+ weeks a year of paid vacation) is almost unheard of. And the idea of retiring at age 55 with a pension (with cost-of-living adjustments) that starts at 75% of one’s final year’s earnings is preposterous.

California’s government workers, especially those in the Silicon Valley, point to the wealth being created by start-up companies who make it big, minting dozens if not hundreds of multi-millionaires, and somehow they think that’s the norm. But it isn’t the norm. The norm is a median private sector worker income of $68,586 per year; a median household income of $91,702 per year. The norm is an employer paid benefits overhead of around 15% (9.0% Social Security and Medicare, at most another 6% for health insurance and a contributory 401K). Not 28%. Not 41%. Not 42%. Not 58%.

California’s government workers deplore the excessive cost of living, especially in the Silicon Valley. But instead of fighting for more wages and benefits for themselves, they might find the vision, the courage, and the selflessness to identify and fight for policies that would lower the cost of living for everyone. Nobody can afford a home, because environmentalists have successfully declared all open space to be sacred. Ordinary workers struggle to pay for gasoline, electricity and water, because development of these resources has been excessively restricted for decades. Across almost every critical household expense, add education and healthcare to the list, ordinary workers pay far more than they would have to in a more competitive economy.

The aspirations of unionized government workers are understandable; the rhetoric of their union leadership is compelling. But these government union leaders don’t live in the real world, and worse, they don’t appear to even care about the real world. Because unlike private sector unions, government unions negotiate with bosses they elect, for a share of taxes that are taken from citizens, not precariously earned by a private company. And they use their unique power to exempt themselves from the economic challenges facing the rest of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

When that is fixed, we may truly breathe a sigh of relief.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90% of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100B+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. [1] Most of that water either evaporates, percolates, or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. [2] Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers. [3]

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25% reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4% of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25% reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. [4] That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. [5] Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart. [6]

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. [7] Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100% of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion. [8]

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100% of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100% of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90% of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)
http://sei-us.org/Publications_PDF/SEI-WesternWater-CWSD-0211.pdf

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”
http://www.water.ca.gov/urbanwatermanagement/2010_Urban_Water_Management_Plan_Data.cfm

(4) Cost of modern reverse osmosis desalination plant:
Technology Review
Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel.
http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534996/megascale-desalination/

(5) Energy required to desalinate seawater using reverse osmosis technology:
Encyclopedia of Desalination and Water Resources
“Energy Requirements of Desalination Process”
Table 1. Energy requirements of four industrial desalination processes.
http://www.desware.net/desa4.aspx

(6) part one – Tehachapi lift of 1,926 feet:
Wikipedia, California Aqueduct
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Aqueduct

(6) part two – energy required to lift water:
University of California, Energy Required to Lift Water
Table 1. The Amount of Energy in Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) Required to Lift One Acre-foot of Water (325,851 gallons) One Foot of Elevation
http://cetulare.ucanr.edu/files/82040.pdf

(7) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005, ref. “South Coast”
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(8) The cost to construct a modern natural gas power plant:
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Capital Costs for Electricity Plants
Download Table 1, “Updated Estimates of Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs” (ref. Natural Gas – the most modern and expensive version)
http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/

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Raise the Minimum Wage, or Lower the Cost of Living?

Increases to the minimum wage in California are moving closer to reality. As reported on March 30th by MyNewsLA.com, “Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis will ask their colleagues to approve spending up to $95,000 to have the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation review a series of studies of the issue performed in relation to the city of Los Angeles’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017 and to $15.25 an hour by 2019.”

California’s minimum wage is currently $9.00 per hour. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.

Largely lost in the debate over the “fight for fifteen” (dollars per hour) is America’s inflation adjusted minimum wage based on historical precedents. It’s an interesting topic that deserves discussion, because historical minimum wages expressed in 2015 dollars vary a great deal. Since establishing the first federal minimum wage in 1938, the amount has been adjusted 22 times. As can be seen on the chart, between 1938 and 1968 the minimum wage expressed in 2015 dollars rose steadily. In 2015 dollars, for example, the 1938 minimum wage would be $4.13, rising to $11.01 per hour by 1968. Since then, it has been in decline – in 2015 dollars the minimum wage was roughly between $9.00 and $10.00 per hour during the 1970’s, then fell to roughly between $7.00 and $8.00 from 1980 through 2009, when it was last adjusted.

Historical Minimum Wages
Expressed in 2015 Dollars
20150331-UW_Ring-MinimumWage

Those who believe in minimum wage laws can draw many conclusions from this data. What they cannot easily conclude, however, is that the minimum wage, today, can rise much beyond $10.00 per hour and still conform to historical norms. Only twice, in 1968 and 1974, did the inflation adjusted minimum wage exceed $10.00 per hour.

From this perspective, California’s state minimum wage, $9.00 per hour, finds itself placed almost exactly at the median in terms of historical federal minimum wage levels expressed in 2015 dollars. From what should be a reasonably compelling economic standpoint, there is no urgent reason to increase the minimum wage above $9.00 per hour, even for those who are solidly in favor of having minimum wage laws. While one may argue that California has a higher cost of living than most other places in the United States, justifying a minimum wage higher than the historical median, one might also acknowledge that many of the benefits offered minimum wage earners today were not available until relatively recently. Examples include the earned income tax credit, not established until 1975, and the steep discount on health premiums offered under Obamacare.

It rises perhaps to the level of overkill to join the libertarian chorus extolling the virtues of an utterly unregulated wage market. Also well documented are the many ulterior motives for labor unions to lead the charge for a higher minimum wage – it gives them powerful political rhetoric to address millions of low income workers not represented by a union, and, more pragmatically, a higher minimum wage rewards union members directly whenever – as is frequently the case – their wage scales are pegged a fixed level above the prevailing minimum wage.

Two observations potentially underrepresented in this debate, however, do deserve mention. First, the fact that unions are attempting to fight for workers in low paying, competitive industries, is at least consistent with the illustrious aspects of their legacy. Unlike unions representing government professionals who perform high paying jobs for monopolistic, taxpayer funded agencies, at least the unions fighting for minimum wage workers are fighting for the little guy. If they might abandon their commitment to flood the United States with unskilled immigrants who drive down wages and threaten the solvency of social welfare programs, and if their labor agreements didn’t peg their own wage scales to float upwards as the minimum wage rises, one could almost believe in their sincerity.

The other fact is more challenging and obscure, yet ought to merit a central place in the debate over economic justice. That is the fact that California’s cost-of-living is the highest in the nation. In California’s coastal cities, the cost of housing is prohibitive; the costs for energy, water, and transportation are punishingly high. For middle class residents, the cost of health insurance is punishing as well. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Competitive resource development – free of extremist environmental hindrances, other regulatory roadblocks, costly project labor agreements and union work rules – would lower the cost of living at the same time as creating millions of new jobs. It could usher in a new golden age for California’s working class.

Those unions who fight for a higher minimum wage might consider fighting to lower the cost-of-living instead. But to do so, they will have to break ranks with the public sector unions, who hide behind oppressive environmentalist restrictions, because they know full well that infrastructure development will come at the cost of their own exorbitant compensation.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

An Economic Win-Win For California – Lower the Cost of Living

A frequent and entirely valid point made by representatives of public sector unions is that their membership, government workers, need to be able to afford to live in the cities and communities they serve. The problem with that argument, however, is that nobody can afford to live in these cities and communities, especially in California.

There are a lot of reasons for California’s high cost of living, but the most crippling by far is the price of housing. Historically, and still today in markets where land development is relatively unconstrained, the median home price is about four times the median household income. In Northern California’s Santa Clara County, the median home price in October 2014 was $699,750, eight times the median household income of $88,215. Even people earning twice the median household income in Santa Clara County will have a very hard time ever paying off a home that costs this much. And if they lose their job, they lose their home. But is land scarce in California?

The answer to this question, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is almost indisputably no. As documented in an earlier post, “California’s Green Bantustans,” “According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land. Think about this. You could put 10 million new residents into homes, four per household, on half-acre lots, and you would only consume 1,953 square miles. If you built those homes on the best prime agricultural land California’s got, you would only use up 14% of it. If you scattered those homes among all of California’s farmland and grazing land – which is far more likely – you would only use up 3% of it. Three percent loss of agricultural land, to allow ten million people to live on half-acre lots.”

So why is it nearly impossible to develop land in California? The answer to this is found in the nexus between financial special interests, who benefit from asset bubbles, and powerful environmentalist organizations who apparently view human settlements as undesirable blights that should be minimized. In the San Francisco Bay Area, to offer a particularly vivid example, the Santa Cruz mountains are being targeted to be cleansed of human habitation. Instead of creating wildlife corridors, they are eliminating human corridors. Is this really necessary?

Human Cleansing – The Evacuation Plan for the Santa Cruz Mountains

20141203_RingDo you want to live in the mountains?
Forget it. Only billionaires and non-humans allowed.

If you are familiar with the San Francisco peninsula, you will see that the area proposed for the “Great Park of the Santa Cruz Mountains” encompasses nearly the entire mountain range. A coalition of environmentalist organizations and government agencies are proposing to create a park of 138,000 acres, that’s 215 square miles, in an area that ought to make room for weekend cabins, mountain dwellers, and vacation communities. Why, in a region where homes cost so much, is so much land being barred to human settlement? The pristine stands of redwoods in Big Basin and Henry Cowell State Park were preserved a century ago. There is nothing wrong with preserving more land around these parks. But do they have to take it all?

This is far from an isolated example. Urban areas in California, primarily Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, have been surrounded by “open space preserves” where future development is prohibited and current residents are harassed. Ask the embattled residents of Stevens Canyon in the hills west of the Silicon Valley, if there are any of them left. Once you’re in a “planning area,” watch out. Backed by bonds sold to naive voters, endowments bestowed by billionaires, and the power of state and federal laws that make living on any property at all increasingly difficult, the relentless land acquisition machine continues to gather momentum. Anyone who thinks there isn’t a connection between setting aside thousands of square miles in California for “habitat” and the price of a home on a lot big enough to accommodate a swing set for the kids needs to have their head examined.

It doesn’t end with open space that is actually purchased, cleansed of humanity, and turned into government ran preserves for plants and wildlife, however. Acquiring permits to build on any land is nearly impossible in California. Land developers who fight year round to try to build housing for people shake their heads in disbelief at the myriad requirements from countless state, federal and local agencies that make the permit process take not months or years, but decades. And it isn’t just farmland, or wetland, or special riparian habitats where development is blocked. It’s everywhere. Even semi-arid rangeland is off limits for housing unless you are prepared to spend millions, fight for decades, and have the staying power to pursue multiple expensive projects simultaneously since many will never, ever get approved.

What is the result? Here is an aerial photo of a subdivision in the Sacramento area, one that every hedge fund billionaire turned environmentalist in California – especially one who runs cattle on his own special 1,800 acre fiefdom in the Santa Cruz mountains on a property that just happens to be in a “non-targeted area” – might consider living in for the rest of his life in order to understand the human consequences of his ideals – cramped homes on 40’x80′ lots, at a going price in October 2014 of $250,000. Notwithstanding being condemned to a claustrophobic existence at a level of congestion that would drive rats in a cage to madness, $250,000 is a pittance for a billionaire. But for an ordinary worker, $250,000 is a life sentence of mortgage servitude. And even this, the single family dwelling, is under attack by “smart growth” environmentalists and public bureaucrats who prefer density to having to divert payroll and benefits to finance infrastructure. The excess! The waste! Stack them and pack them and let them ride trains!

Priced to Sell at $250,000 – Housing for Humans on 40’x80′ Lots

201402_Sacramento-500pxNo mountain air, ocean breezes, or open space for the little people.
Buy a permit, get in line, visit for a day, but then come home to this.

When public employee union leadership talk about the importance of paying their members a “middle class” package of pay and benefits, they’re right. Government workers should enjoy a middle class lifestyle. But they need to understand that the asset bubbles caused by high prices for housing are not only making it necessary to pay them more, but are also creating the inflated property tax revenue that they rely on for much of their compensation. They need to understand that the phony economic growth caused by everyone borrowing against their inflated home equity is what creates the stock market appreciation that their pension funds rely on to remain solvent. And they need to understand that all of this is a bubble, kept intact by crippling, misanthropic land use restrictions that hurt all working people.

There is another path. That is for public employee union leadership to recognize that everyone deserves a chance at a middle class lifestyle. And the way to do that is not to advocate higher pay and benefits to public employees, but to advocate a lower cost of living, starting with housing. One may argue endlessly about how to regulate or deregulate water and energy production, essentials of life that also have artificially inflated costs. But as long as suburban homes consume less water than Walnut orchards – and they do, much less – build more homes to drive their prices way, way down. There’s plenty of land.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

How to Create Affordable Abundance in California, July 1, 2014

California’s Green Bantustans, May 21, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2014

Pension Funds and the “Asset” Economy, February 18, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Joel Kotkin, January 4, 2014

Bipartisan Solutions for California, October 27, 2013

How Should Technological Advances Affect the Role of Government?, September 16, 2013

Preserving America’s Middle Class, June 24, 2013

Arrogance of the Political Elite Costs You at the Pump

It’s election season and finally there’s a bit of good news for California politicians seeking reelection. A recent Field poll shows that, for the first time in 7 years, there are more California voters that think they are financially better off than those who believe they are worse off.

However, for the political elite, that is the end of the good news. The poll also reveals that more than half of voters, 53%, see the state being in economic bad times while only 25% see these as good times. And to top it off, there are more Californians who believe the state is headed in the wrong direction as opposed to those who think the state is on the right track.

If politicians believe they can weather what they hope is a passing public relations storm, it is time to key the chorus of the Bachman Turner Overdrive song, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”

California has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, but there is still one constant that the state is famous for – the California Car Culture. But now, lurking just around the corner are carbon emission fees to be charged to oil companies as part of the state’s cap-and-trade program. The cost to consumers will be huge and painful. These fees are expected to add at least 15 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas in the short term and nearly as much as $2 per gallon over the next five years. Even powerful Democratic Senator Darrel Steinberg has suggested the increase could be 40 cents a gallon, which is why he has suggested charging a smaller amount directly to consumers, rather than to the oil companies.

Compounding the pain inflicted by California’s regulatory overreach, it looks like Washington wants higher gas taxes, too. In what is being billed as a bipartisan proposal, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn) are promoting a 12 cent increase in the federal gas tax that currently sits at 18.4 cents a gallon.

To the well off driving luxury cars, the price of gas is meaningless. If you’re paying over $400 for a bottle of your favorite Cognac, then $5 per gallon gas isn’t even going to raise your eyebrows. Moreover, many of the political elite – usually among the wealthy themselves – will be thrilled if the high cost of fuel drives average folks to mass transit. To their way of thinking, these changes will improve the environment and provide the additional benefit of opening up the roads for those who can afford high priced luxury and exotic automobiles. Obviously, they have no intention of joining the great unwashed who will now be forced to ride the bus or the train.

For average working folks however, more increases in the cost of gas will have a devastating financial impact. Wealthy environmental do-gooders who favor imposing a low-calorie diet on others may get their way as more and more families will be forced to choose between enough gasoline to get to work and a full grocery cart.

Working Californians struggling to support their families will not take kindly to having the cost of their commute artificially inflated by the political class. Their anger will not be dissipated by having those on the left wagging their fingers at them while saying they should move closer to work or find a job nearer to home or take the bus. Easy for the political elites to say when jobs are scarce and the cost of housing is tops in the nation.

But is the potential for a tsunami political backlash waking up our elected leaders? We hope so. Last month, 16 Democratic Assembly members, who are in touch with their constituents’problems, sent a letter to California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols, urging a delay in the implementation of the state’s cap-and-trade program. (To their credit, the Republicans have always been skeptical of the program). Seeking relief for their constituents, the Democrats wrote,” many of the areas we represent are still struggling with double digit unemployment.” In fact, these lawmakers concerns are shared throughout the state. Unemployment remains high with several million Californians unemployed or underemployed and adding to the cost of energy and fuel will do nothing to help the state out of this economic hole.

What California could use right now is a bipartisan effort in Sacramento. Sensible Democrats and Republicans should take immediate action to lift the state’s boot from the necks of working people, and the businesses that employ them.

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About the Author: Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.