When I was about eleven years old my favorite Barbie was Midge from the California Dream collection. Barbie’s BFF, she had auburn hair and freckles. Midge came with roller skates and a blue visor and I loved her. My sister had California Dream Barbie and we would pop in the Beach Boys Greatest Hits cassette tape and pretend we were living in California for hours upon hours, day after day. We wore that cassette tape out, screaming the lyrics to “California Dreamin’” on cold winter days in Connecticut. I imagined Midge was me, cruising down the boardwalk with the wind in my hair and the sun on my cheeks. My dreams of being a California girl began in those afternoons lost in fantasyland.
Several years later I spent a summer with my aunt and uncle in Los Angeles and took some UCLA extension classes. We went to San Diego, Disneyland and Universal Studios. We visited colleges and took a road trip up the coast to San Francisco, which struck me as the most gorgeous city I’d ever seen: a sparkling radiant jewel upon the sea. We stopped in Big Sur. We got chowder in a sourdough bread bowl on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. I rollerbladed on the boardwalk. California was everything I’d imagined and so much more. Remembering the California I first fell in love with makes me emotional about its tragic decline in the intervening decades.
California has long represented opportunity and boundless growth, and that’s exactly what it did until 2020, when, for the first time in a century, the state’s population declined. It was a place full of potential where dreams come true. The Gold Rush. Tinseltown. Silicon Valley. It’s been a leader in culture and politics and technology and industry for generations.
To act like the problems that ravage the state are new would be a lie. The heat. The fires. The homelessness. Even in 1995, Santa Monica was known colloquially as “home of the homeless.” The electric grid. The water situation. Wealth inequality. All these problems existed in California twenty or thirty years ago and don’t only exist in California today. One look at the Texas electric grid proves that. But things have undoubtedly gotten worse — and Covid accelerated all the problems that were already beginning to undermine the once-great state. Today, it all seems untenable.
I wanted to leave California before it was cool. Back in 2015 I was getting a distinctly pre-apocalyptic vibe. Crime and tent cities were getting worse. Many of my middle-class friends and relatives had been part of the first wave of the California exodus. They had young families and could see the writing on the wall: there is no path upward in California if you’re middle class. There is obscenely rich and there is poor.
The cost of living is already outrageous, so when the prices of goods and energy go up, it pushes people already on the edge into poverty or homelessness or out of the state. According to the California Association of Realtors’ Traditional Housing Affordability Index, “During the second quarter of this year, only 16 percent of California households could afford to purchase the $883,370 median-priced single-family home.” That is insane.
But it isn’t just the middle class who are leaving. In the past two years, the rich have fled too. A perfect storm of remote work, high taxes, overregulation and draconian Covid policies made it sensible for the highest earners (as well as some huge businesses) to vote with their feet and leave the state.
Ridiculous administrative state overreach, like the Air Resources Board issuing mandates that will ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035 — and then four days later asking California residents not to charge their electric vehicles due to electricity shortages — are beyond parody. In 2024 Angelenos will vote on a bill that requires hotels to offer their vacant rooms to the homeless. Imagine paying $800 a night at Shutters to share the elevator with a junkie. Although, in fairness, you might already be sharing the elevator with a junkie at Shutters.
When I complain about the state of California, folks with more means always say: “Just leave.” But it’s not as easy as it sounds. We just had a baby and have family here. Leaving California means leaving our support network and moving to a state where we have nothing. I still love the weather and the farmers’ markets and the ocean. How do you balance these things?
Perhaps the thing that has pushed me over the edge is that my elected leaders don’t care about my safety. I realized how conditioned I’d become to the dangers of Los Angeles on a recent trip to visit my family in New England. Walking with my baby, I realized I was somewhere I didn’t need to be constantly on the lookout for a mentally disturbed person. My nervous system could relax, and, in this moment, I could see clearly: it’s time to go, no matter the trade-offs. My safety and the safety of my child have to be the priority.
But this solution creates another problem: I will soon be a California refugee — and everyone in America hates Californians. And I get it, they’re honestly the worst. They’ve exported their California problems to the rest of the country, pricing locals out of their own towns. I just wish I were rich enough to be part of the problem.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.