SACRAMENTO — I’ve occasionally quoted journalist H.L. Mencken’s quip that the “whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” But after years of covering California politics, I think the quotation needs revision.
Modern politicians often alarm the populace about real problems rather than hobgoblins. The flaw is that their solutions usually make things worse. Politicians promise to lead us to safety, but don’t admit that the latest danger was caused by their previous policies.
The latest example involves California’s crisis du jour: housing. We all see the outrageous prices of homes and apartments. The median home price in Orange County approaches $700,000, which means most buyers need more than $100,000 in cash to get a mortgage, and the monthly nut (with taxes and insurance) will approach $4,000.
We tell ourselves this is caused by the high demand to live in paradise, but demand is only half of the story. The other half is supply. There’s plenty of room to build, even in the state’s crowded urban areas, but myriad local and state policies have made it impossible for builders to keep up with the growing population.
Prices have gotten so outlandish, and cost-of-living-driven poverty rates so astronomical, that lawmakers now promise relief in the form of a state “housing package.” Alas, most of what they offer will raise taxes and give the government more control of the market.
Before we get to these “solutions,” it’s important to revisit the thinking that got us to this crisis point. A decade ago, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown was praising Marin, the tony 260,000-population county on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, as the model for the state because of the ways its growth-retarding land-use policies allegedly fought global warming.
Marin is a beautiful place, filled with lush, open hills just a stone’s throw from one of the most congested and priciest cities in the country. The Marin model, as I explained in my 2007 Register column, involves eager compliance “with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires cities and counties to identify potential environmental impacts from proposed developments and take reasonable measures to mitigate them.”
Marin County was trying to reduce its “ecological footprint” by making it nearly impossible to build most types of…