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California is becoming 'post-industrial hell,' economist says

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Since the recession began, times have been tough in California – everybody knows it. The economy is in a protracted stall.

But it took economists at California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting to describe, in hyperbolic language, the depth of the problems that have beset the Golden State since the stock market started to tank in the summer of ’08.

“California,” writes center director Bill Watkins, “is fast becoming a post-industrial hell.”

That’s true “for almost everyone except the gentry class, their best servants and the public sector,” he writes.

In an essay and accompanying PowerPoint, Watkins sketches his portrait of Lotus Land as Hell on Earth by citing a series of post-recession economic statistics, many familiar, all of them sobering:

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  • The state’s unemployment rate seems stuck at 12 percent, higher than the national average, and the state is still shedding jobs.
  • The poverty rate is 16.1 percent, also slightly higher than the national average, and maybe 10 points higher when adjusted for the high cost of living.
  • Fresno and San Bernardino are among the 10 poorest large cities in the U.S. With a 34.6 percent poverty rate, San Bernardino is the second-poorest U.S. city, after famously troubled Detroit.

Other economic indicators give a grim readout as well, according to Watkins. Wages are down. Since the recession began, the value of the average California home has dropped by about $90,000. About 3 percent of all home mortgages are in foreclosure.

And while 150,000 California students get their college diplomas each year, the state is creating only about 50,000 jobs for people with college degrees, he writes.

And so, middle-class people are bailing out. “Domestic migration has been negative for a decade,” Watkins writes, and the state is attracting fewer legal immigrants from abroad.

To top it off, Watkins complains of problems with the state’s schools and highways, its brutally gridlocked traffic, and even the reliability of the water supply.

“California’s future is pretty grim, until Sacramento takes off the blinders,” he writes.

Despite the hyperbole, the center is a reputable institution, and one would ignore its pessimism at one’s peril.

And yet, it’s also true that the flip side of the California dream has always been an apocalyptic sense of doom and gloom.

The Golden State is a lovely landscape undergirded by violently active earthquake faults. It has a delightful Mediterranean climate that is prone to drought, firestorm and flood. Perhaps as a result, California has attracted regular predictions of Biblical-style catastrophe. Apocalyptic thinkers, religious and otherwise, emphatically say the end is at hand. The concepts are embedded in our art and popular literature.

In 1968, Curt Gentry wrote the ultimate novel of Golden State apocalypse, “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California,” a vision of a mega-earthquake on the San Andreas Fault that blasts everything west of Placerville 50 fathoms deep into the Pacific Ocean. Thrilling fiction, it was wildly popular. Nothing like that has ever happened, of course.

Six years later, with prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, Gentry wrote the true story of a notorious California apocalyptic, the LSD psycho-killer Charles Manson, who hoped to set off California’s end of days by inciting a race war in the streets of Los Angeles. Manson’s vision of apocalypse and the book were called “Helter Skelter."

Since Manson went to prison, there have been major earthquakes, massive urban forest fires, regular droughts and floods, and three deep recessions. But Helter Skelter has never actually occurred.

And people keep moving here, for the gorgeous weather, or the magnificent scenery, or the amazing people, or the freedom, or the hope of getting rich.

In 2010, while the state was staggering under the weight of the economic downturn, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to describe the allure of California, despite its problems.

"No matter where you go in the world, people still want to come to California," he told a Silicon Valley conference. "There's no one screaming, like, 'I can't wait to get to Iowa.' That I can guarantee you. They want to come here to California."

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