It's two tales of the city, 2000 versus 2003, the best of times and the worst of times. Should we feel sorry for our friends in Northern California now that their tech bubble has burst?
Hardly. Even after their economic meltdown, Southern Californians are still little more than a speck in the northern economy's rearview mirror. And the main reason, as revealed in census data, is surprising.
The factor chiefly responsible for the differences between North and South is not intrinsically economic. It relates to how each region treats the environment. There is an apparent relationship between the environment and the economy: They rise or fall together. And the Northerners are benefiting from a nasty streak of environmentalism, a problem with which Southern Californians obviously are not afflicted.
The 2000 census revealed a yawning gap in per capita income between Southern and Northern California, specifically the Bay Area. Every Bay Area county beat us out, with even the supposed tattered ragamuffin of Alameda being substantially ahead.
With the exception of Orange County, which was slightly above the national average, Southland personal incomes varied from below the national norm to desolation. Even after the Northern economic nosedive, the chasm remains (granted, other means of measuring societal income yield different results).
Was the North's rise just luck in being a high-tech hothouse? Well, that luck has turned 180 degrees. And luck, as was once stated by the owner of the Dodgers (back when it could be said with some assurance that they were in fact owned), is the residue of design.
In Southern California, we traditionally believe that population growth is the hub of our prosperity. If we don't grow, our economy withers and dies. Anyone holding this view needs to explain how arguably the most favored locale on the planet is below the national average in personal income and has been suffering a decades-long decline in constant dollars. The census data explain it.
Northern California's pro-environment philosophy of life produces a restrictive development ethic. Because unchecked growth overtaxes the environment as well as government infrastructure (including police, fire and schools), severe limits have been put in place. But where only limited numbers of habitations can be built, the higher the quality, the higher the profit.
In the Bay Area, dwellings targeted to low-income groups are generally built only as part of government programs. Environmental policies have the effect (Northern liberals hate hearing this, but oh well) of excluding these lower economic classes by reducing or eliminating housing available to them.
Here in the Southland, on the other hand, the environment is just something to be bulldozed. Stand still for 10 minutes and you're in danger of having a condo built on you.
So that sums it up, right? Disproportionately higher amounts of cheap labor here simply lower our average. But that's not the whole story. Take the case of an imaginary retailer selling, well, widgets. Five salespeople are going about their widgety business during the mid-1990s.
Fast forward a few years after a large influx of cheap labor. The same store now has 10 salespeople. Though the average consumer has less real buying power, which results in a lower per-sale average price, profit is up for the merchant because of high volume.
Things aren't so good for the salespeople. It takes as much energy to move a cheap widget as an expensive one, so the average income is down. When the salespeople cash their shrinking paychecks, the difference percolates up and down the economic hierarchy.
This "trickle up" effect means that all economic classes except the wealthy (the widget shop owners) are dragged down. Southern California enjoys overall growth but decreasing individual incomes, with workers falling into lower economic classes.
This being the 21st century, call it the Titanium Law of Wages.
For this hypothesis to be correct, an economic slowdown in the Bay Area should result in a loss of population with unemployed people having no recourse other than to move. That has occurred, with all counties experiencing hemorrhaging. Remember that the Bay Area's economic clout is a byproduct of a cherished concept -- environmentalism. Sort of doing well economically by doing good socially.
But because it's not really a policy choice, there's no buffer for the current downturn, producing the above Draconian results.
Here in the Southland, it's more like doing badly by doing bad. It's hard to believe that Southern California was once better off than the nation as a whole. We've managed to pull off the unthinkable.
Which brings us back to the environment. A former president once said that if you've seen one redwood, you've seen 'em all. If the SoCal mentality bulldozes its way throughout the state, we just might get down to one last redwood. Seeing that lone ranger would be seeing 'em all.