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Who killed the California dream? If you think it was liberals, think again

California’s in tough shape. We’ve got our own dangerous virus variant, homelessness appears uncontrollable, and the governor may soon face a recall election.

That can mean only one thing: It's time for establishment media to once again declare the death of “the California dream.”

It’s happened every downturn since the end of the gold rush, but these new eulogies have a fresh twist. The dream this time has apparently been ruined by an excess of liberalism. Big government projects and overregulation are to blame for the shattering of an illusion.

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Without question, California sometimes suffers vertigo from tilting too far left; the San Francisco Board of Education’s crusade to rename schools is one handy example. Small-business owners here can rattle off a long list of frustrations about government micromanagement.

But this is also a state where voters last November overwhelming rejected progressive ballot measures to end bail, restore affirmative action, strengthen rent control and hike taxes on commercial property. 

Rather than liberalism, California is the victim of something quite different: high tech and the rough economic beast it calls “creative destruction.” A generation ago, Silicon Valley was heralded as the state’s salvation, but it has instead constructed a winner-take-all world of the superrich serviced by gig workers who face anxiety and uncertainty with every sunrise.

When most East Coast-based media speak of the California dream, they really have one particular era in mind: the post-World War II boom. Between 1940 and 1950, the state’s population grew by 53 percent; from 1950 to 1960, another 49 percent.

Families moved here not just because of the Beach Boys; they were drawn by an explosion of Cold War jobs in aerospace and other defense industries. FHA loans and the GI Bill enabled those workers to build homes, buy cars, and send their kids to well-run public schools. 

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But when the Berlin Wall collapsed, so did that defense-based economy. By the early 1990s, more than 200,000 industrial jobs were lost in Southern California alone. The late Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.) told the Washington Post, “The truth is we were not prepared for peace in the world.”

Years of anger and despair followed: high unemployment, gang violence and riots. Mother Nature didn’t help, as earthquakes, fires and floods ravaged wide sections of the state. California in the '90s felt like it was going through a nervous breakdown.

But amid all this, green shoots appeared south of San Francisco, in Silicon Valley. Computer engineers and technology innovators there envisioned a brave new world of unlimited access to information, instant connection across the globe, and bold choices for workers and industry.

Dreams of a second post-war-style boom blossomed.

Three decades later, changes in our everyday lives are significant — from online banking to iPhones. But the working world Big Tech has created is very different from the broad prosperity shared by defense and aerospace working families. A relative handful of people have made a lot of money — the kind of money not even Gold Rush barons could dream of. And then there’s everybody else.

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By the end of 2018, for example, wages were actually down even in Silicon Valley — for everyone outside the top 10 percent. Those decreases were driven in part by outsourcing and by the downward wage pressure of a low-paid gig economy created by the likes of Uber, DoorDash, TaskRabbit and Instacart.

At the same time, high tech’s steady stream of newly minted millionaires and billionaires helped drive up property values throughout the state — contributing substantially to California’s always-difficult homeless problem. It got so bad in Silicon Valley that the San Jose school district came up with a plan to turn unused schools into housing for teachers who otherwise couldn’t afford to live anywhere near their students.

Several California born-and-bred technology companies are now — predictably — moving out of the state, escaping the uncomfortable issues they helped create. Oracle and Hewlett-Packard are heading for Texas, others to Florida — places where workers can actually buy a house and where corporations can dream of what a Hewlett-Packard spokesperson termed “opportunities for long-term cost savings.”

Yes, the California dream is having a fragile moment. To find the biggest culprit, don’t point at liberalism. Media should instead examine an industry that began with real promise — but soon evolved into a brutal form of creative destruction. That disruption has compelled too many descendants of Cold War workers to make ends meet by standing in line or running up and down supermarket aisles so better-off people don’t have to.

Years ago, Facebook’s Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergAdvocacy group accuses Facebook of fueling anti-Muslim hate Texas GOP move to overhaul voting laws: What you need to know Congress must come together and protect our children on social media MORE adopted a motto for his then-rapidly growing startup — words that were soon embraced by others as a high tech creed: “Move fast and break things.”

That’s just what’s been done to many dreams, California and otherwise.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.