Joel Kotkin explains how Coastal California environmental superstition combined with snobbery is devastating the economy, and wiping out the jobs, of Blue Collar in-land Kern County.
Located over the mountains from Los Angeles, Kern County has always been a different kind of place. Settled largely by “Okies and Arkies” from the Depression-era South, the area has a culture more southern than northern, more Ozarks than Sierra. Home to just under 1 million people at the southern end of the state’s Central Valley, Kern is noted for producing the “Bakersfield sound,” epitomized by the late country star Merle Haggard, and is sometimes even referred to as “little Texas.”
Its economy rested on two natural resource industries that once powered California – agriculture and oil. The region leads California in energy production and is fourth in agriculture, mainly yielding lettuce, strawberries, and grapes. Its concentration of agricultural jobs is 22 times the national average and its oil industry jobs are 6 times the national average.
Although these may seem like “old economy” jobs, the Kern area has easily outperformed zippy “new economy” places in total job growth; outside of the Silicon Valley, notes Chapman analyst Marshall Toplansky, Kern is one of few California areas producing mid-wage jobs above the national average – far more than San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties, which have fallen behind the national pace. …
In a state suffering from high housing prices and a lack of middle-wage jobs, one would think boosting Kern County and its largest city, Bakersfield (population: 700,000) would be a priority. Governor Gavin Newsom boasts that he wants to look for ways of “unlocking the enormous potential” of the Central Valley, but he seems more interested in flattening the area’s aspirations.
Climate policy sits at the core of this assault. Reflecting the prejudicial neuroses of his Bay Area and oligarchic base, Governor Newsom – who Dan Walters describes as “California’s champion virtue signaler” – has announced plans to shut down the state’s oil industry. Newsom’s latest unlegislated decree directed state regulators to ban all forms of oil and gas well stimulation technologies, including steam injection, essential for oil and gas extraction in the state. The draft rules, issued last month, would effectively sharply limit California’s oil and gas industry as well as future exploration and development. According to a study by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, these dictates threaten over 366,000 high-paying, largely blue-collar jobs, about half held by people of color. Another 3.9 million jobs, 16.5% of total state employment, are at risk from these policies.
People in Bakersfield may depend on these jobs, but rigid Ecotopians – backed by investment bankers, social media magnates, and urban real estate interests, the funders of “progressive” politics – want them eliminated. The green push also threatens to destroy the area’s ability to fund local services. Renewable firms thrive in the area – producing 25 percent of all California’s renewable energy, according to the Kern EDC, and serving as home to the nation’s largest solar plant, wind farm, and geothermal facility. But these facilities tend to pay little or no property tax, while oil represents the largest source of local revenue. Green energy won’t do much for the county when faced with the demand for more welfare and other services that would accompany increased joblessness stemming from the demise of oil.
Nor is energy the only area Newsom is seeking to undermine the local economy, particularly now that California is about to have another of its regular droughts. The last one ended in 2017. Since then, first under Jerry Brown and now Newsom, the state has done little to increase reservoir storage capacity during wetter years. Captured water is increasingly released into San Francisco Bay, rather than used for homes and farms, in a quixotic attempt to “save” species in decline despite decades of “scientific” protection.
Like the energy sector, agriculture finds itself in the crosshairs of the greens, who link dry weather to climate but oppose the construction of new reservoirs, preferring to use runoff for natural areas like San Francisco Bay and the adjoining delta. The preferred solution to droughts today is not de-salinization or boosting water storage, but wiping out farmland, creating a dystopic landscape of abandoned fields in some of the world’s richest agricultural areas.
The losers here are not just the “corporate” farms long disdained by California’s progressives. In the last drought, which ended in 2017, thousands of poor and predominantly Latino workers lost their jobs. The most recent drought is hitting just as Central Valley farmers struggle with new groundwater regulations that dramatically cut their ability to cope with reduced runoff from rain and snowmelt. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, groundwater limits will eliminate between 535,000 and 750,000 acres of Valley farmland. Small farmers, who won’t be able to pay for or even secure ever-scarcer water, likely would be the worst hit.