Saturday, July 11, 2009




The tale of a great exodus from California has traveled from the cover of Newsweek magazine to the opinion pages of the great (if nearly bankrupt) Eastern newspapers and has even snuck onto the op-ed pages of some California newspapers and into some so-called news reports on California TV stations.

There's just one problem with this big national story: it's mostly a myth, largely a fiction useful only for political purposes.

Sure, some Californians have moved to other states over the last few years, 275,000 more leaving the state than moving in from other states between 2004 and 2007. Those who leave often tell reporters they left to avoid heavy traffic or a wave of illegal immigrants or high taxes.

But the real motive for many has been clear to anyone who cares enough to follow the money: Most were cashing out houses at or near the height of the California real estate boom and buying new and larger homes in nearby states like Arizona and Nevada and Idaho and Washington for far less. The balance went into their bank accounts or investments, some of which have since tanked.

That's reality, but reality often is less politically useful than myth. So the tale of a miserable business climate driving away jobs is pushed endlessly. This fable was used successfully - if untruthfully - by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the recall campaign when he won election in 2003 and it's constant fodder for the Republican minority in the state's Legislature which can never become a majority unless it can convince a lot of voters that Democrats are exclusively behind the state's many demonstrable problems.

Not the least of those difficulties is a seemingly perpetual budget impasse. California highways, once the envy of the nation, now are pitted and potholed, often hazardous to tires and other automotive parts. School dropout rates are officially reported at about 30 percent, while they're actually much higher. Hospitals are perpetually in financial trouble. And there's more. But go to other states, and the problems look quite familiar, everything from recessionary budget cuts and impasses (Arizona, Pennsylvania and Indiana) to large numbers of illegal immigrants (Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and more).

So yes, plenty of former Californians have emigrated to other states in recent years. Many are retirees; a relative few are still productive workers. But who bought the high-priced homes they left behind? Most likely productive, middle-class working families.

The related myth, that California's environmental laws drive away businesses in droves, is equally false. Sure, some businesses leave, attracted by offers of several years of property tax exemptions and other benefits, offers California would be foolish to match. But a thorough study by the Public Policy Institute of California conducted just after Schwarzenegger exploited this theme ad nauseum in 2003 found no such flight. In fact, the PPIC now says there are so many thriving businesses here that there's an impending shortage of college-trained workers to fill the jobs they now offer or will create over the next few years.

Then there are the latest population figures, somewhat startling. Against the myth of population loss comes the reality of an actual 400,000-plus population gain over the last year, just about the same pace as most of the last decade.

At the same time, Californians who formerly moved an average of once every seven years - with a lot of that movement in and out of the state - are now staying put.

One result is that the state will soon have a home-grown majority, as more than 70 percent of Californians aged 15 to 24 were born here. Yes, there are some children of illegal immigrants in that group. But they total just 14 percent, meaning the vast majority of adolescents and young adults here today were born here to parents who were either U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. Even that percentage will be dropping soon, as the illegal immigrant wave wanes amid hard economic times.

For the sake of those young people, and for the sake of the many businesses that will suffer from any shortage of competent, college-trained workers, it's vital to spare schools and universities from any more of the budget cuts they've suffered in the past year.

Perpetuating those cuts can only create an even greater need for highly skilled immigrant labor than is now forecast, at the expense of home-grown talent.

The bottom line: When tales of a mass population and business exodus emerge from the mouths of Eastern pundits or California politicians, laugh. For these are mostly myths and lies, not worthy of being taken seriously.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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