Why I'm not moving to California

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Many companies I would like to work for are based there and have their only offices there, so this stance limits who I can work for. Remote-friendly is my only option, and happily that segment has enough demand I can still find gainful employment in the largest IT market in the US. There are two big reasons for why I won't move to California:

  1. I couldn't stay married if I moved.
  2. The California political system is functionally broken.

Number one doesn't make for a long blog-post, so I'll skip it to focus on the second point.

A failure of democracy: the initiative system

Democracy goes to those who show up.

Government goes to those who show up, are well organized, and have funding.

The initiative process for those of you who aren't familiar with them, is a form of plebiscate. Many western US states have initiative processes, as they were a trendy topic when the western territories were applying to become states. They're seen as a more pure form of democracy than representative democracy, which is what the rest of the US political system is based on. If a group of citizens can gather enough signatures for a bit of legislation, they can get that legislation passed in the next election; in most cases, such legislation can not be overridden by the State legislature.

The intent here is to provide a check on the overriding power of the State legislature, which at the time had a tendency to be captured by industrial interests. Rail-barons and monopolists were a real thing, after all.

With the advent of modern media, a much larger percentage of the population is reachable with relatively little effort compared to the 1910's. In 1910, a special interest (be it a railroad, oil company, or anti-gambling crusader) found their biggest impact on public policy was by lobbying state legislators and other public officials. Best bang for their buck, and didn't require an army of canvassers and hawkers. That didn't stop grassroots organizers from trying to push public policy, they just weren't very good at it; 1914 had 46 initiatives on it, of which 6 passed.

Since the 1910's changes to the initiative process have been made to ensure only initiatives with broad enough public support would be put on the ballot, as voters were getting tired of spending half an hour to vote and way longer in voting-place lines. With modern media, scrounging enough signatures to get a special-interest initiative on the ballot is an intensive advertising campaign away. If an interest can get an initiative passed, the State Legislature can't do anything about it other than live with the impacts.

Democracy goes to those who show up, are organized, and have funding.

Initiative sponsors are the very special interests the initiative process was designed to oust. This leads to initiatives focusing on narrow pieces of government, that over time build a hodge-podge legal system that makes it hard to function.

Raising certain taxes requires a 2/3rds super-majority.
Oh, how about if we ensure budgets have a broad consensus, and require budget-bills be passed with a super-majority.
Education spending is the basis of a healthy population, protect that funding from budget-cuts.
Three felony strikes, and you're outta the public eye for life!
Okay, that's a lot of people serving life sentences, perhaps drug-offenders can get treatment instead.

And so on. It's the kind of code-smell (legal code is still code) that makes you itch to refactor, but refactoring requires going before a committee of managers, some of whom don't know how the system works anymore and are the kind of manager that others need to keep happy.

All of this leads to a government that has to jump through too many hoops, or require unreasonable levels of cooperation between the political parties, to be effective. I don't want to live in a place with government that broken.

There are calls for California to flush it all and rewrite it from scratch have a constitutional convention to deal with this mess, but it hasn't happened yet.

And then there is the Bay Area

To the tech industry, the rest of the state doesn't matter so I'm not going to talk about it.

Did you know that you can do local initiatives too? You bet. But when you get to local politics, only the most invested of interests show up, which selects for existing property owners looking to increase value. Not In My Back Yard is an impulse every city-council meeting has to grapple with. Due to the money involved in the Bay Area, ideas that sound good so long as you're not next door to them get little traction. The few that do end up getting passed face well funded lawsuits by property-owners looking to undo it.

Office-rents in SFO already exceed those of Manhattan. For residential housing, if you can get a mortgage, you're almost certain to be paying more than $2000/mo on it. For renters, over 40% of them are paying more than 30% of their income on the rent (based on US Census data from 2014). Non-census sources suggest rents are even higher, with 2BR units going for north of $3500 on average. To support a housing-payment of $3500/mo, you need to be making $140K/year at least in household-income. For those of us who are single-income families, even Bay Area salaries mean I'll be spending two or more hours a day commuting to work.

Also, San Francisco is the #1 renter-hostile market according to Forbes. San Jose and Oakland take the net two spots. Once you've found a place you can afford, there is zero guarantee it'll still be there in a year or you'll have the same rent.

In the way of big-city in-fill, unit sizes are getting smaller all the time as the available space shrinks.

Impacts to things people generally don't care about, like 401k contributions

There is a funny thing that happens when you make $140K/year, you start running into limits to how you can contribute to your retirement.

If you make more than $132K/year, and are single, you can't contribute to a Roth IRA. But that's a minor thing, since most people are married by the time they hit their 30's, and the limit for household is $189K/year.

The 2016 limit for 401k contributions is $18K. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that if you're earning $140K/year, that 18K is only 12.8% of your income. By the time you hit 40, you should be saving 10% or more for retirement. Employer matching contributions can help you get there (and are NOT subject to the contribution limits), but such contributions are few and far between in the startup space, and when they exist at all are not generous.

If you're paying over 30% of income on rent, paying another 10% for retirement is pretty hard.

This is the Federal Government's way of saying:

You will not be retiring in the Bay Area without extensive non-Retirement savings.

Yeah, not dong that.

Nope. I've never lived there. I don't have roots there. Migrating there to chase the labor market is a bad idea for me.

Thanks for reading.

1 Comment

Great take on the issues vexing those considering moving to CA. Really enjoyed reading it.

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