Nicholas Kristof Could Not Be More Wrong About the West Coast (2024)

What Nicholas Kristof's recent article, "What Have We Liberals Done to the West Coast?," makes too apparent is that Oregon must thank the stars (its supreme court) for disqualifying Kristof from the state's 2022 race for governor. This man is not a part of the solution. He really is at the heart of that state's problems, which stem from the perpetuation of a social structure with distributional commitments that are far from rational or, put another way, optimal.

Oregon, in this regard, is in the same boat as California, Washington, and, with some minor modifications, British Columbia. This is the Left Coast. A region whose cities, until very recently, pushed for social policies that defied what people like Kristof characterized as commonsense. Their conventional feeling of a political middle (not too far right, not too far left), however, is no longer in the center-right (there is only a right now); it's entirely in a center-left that counts progressives and socialists as its neighbors. Kristof is on the right of the center-left. The same goes for a good chunk of Seattle's current city council. And how does this group hope to fix the West Coast? Reestablishing the Reagan-era policies that, precisely, proved to be a distributional disaster for most Americans.

"What Have We Liberals Done to the West Coast?" begins with what its author imagines to be the core centrist question: "Why put liberals in charge nationally when the places where they have greatest control are plagued by homelessness, crime and dysfunction?" Kristof admits that blue states do perform better than red states when it comes to not inconsequential things such as "life expectancy," "child poverty," and "education." The problem, therefore, mostly has to do with blue states in the West. This region of America is, according to Kristof, a total disaster: too many homeless people, weak mental health services, and high crime (Portland's homicide rate dusts New York City's). Why has the West Coast become so ungovernable? On top of reading too much Ibram X. Kendi, and lacking Republicans to counterbalance leftist power, Kristof argues that West Coast's progressives are indifferent "to the laws of economics."

— Jeff Hard Author (@AuthorHard) June 16, 2024

After describing all of the bad things happening to everyone on the West Coast, Kristof opens the curtains with this sentence: "What matters is improving opportunities and quality of life, and the best path to do that is a relentless empiricism — which clashes with the West Coast’s indifference to the laws of economics." Our columnist is clearly under the impression that economics is as natural as a tree or a cloud in the sky. Such a view can only conclude that distributional issues are best settled if they are left alone. Interventionism, particularly the aggressive kind promoted by progressives and socialists, can only make matters worse.

Kristof writes:

The basic reason for homelessness on the West Coast is an enormous shortage of housing that drives up rents. California lacks about three million housing units, in part because it’s difficult to get permission to build.

He then rejects social housing because the government is not as efficient as the market. This is not, of course, economics in the scientific (meaning natural) sense imagined by mainstream media and academia. It is just plain old Reaganomics. Big government is bad and wasteful. The market is quick and resourceful. That sort of claptrap. But if economics is to live up to its name (the rational management of wealth), then it first has to delink its program from a form of growth that knows no limit. As long as the two are connected, we will continue to confuse it with things like balanced budgets, welfare cuts, and unregulated markets. We will also continue to define economic success as a growth rate that's 2% or higher. One percent (or, god forbid, negative) growth is a disaster. The public must fear a recession more than death. This dreadful feeling makes sense because it's very much like unlimited growth. Both are metaphysical.

The West Coast, however, is far from poor or anything resembling a recession. The five largest corporations "by market capitalization," for example, call this region home: Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Google, and Amazon. Their combined financial value surpasses the combined GDP of Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. And so, if there's poverty here, it can't be attributed to a lack of capital. It is instead structural. Or owes its realization to a configuration space whose compossibles make the physical productions of poverty (homelessness, underfunded schools, crime) possible.

Note: I use, in my system, configuration space in a sense considerably altered from its source, physics;and compossible in a sense borrowed without alteration from the German rationalist philosopher Leibniz. The former (which the economist Joan Robinson called, in her post-Keynesian system, "the rules of the game"), defines the virtuality that pre-shapes reality; the latter, the movement from the virtual to the real. In short, my system describes the virtual (a space shaped by culturally determined laws and policies) as equal with (if not more important than) what results from its shaping: low wages, billionaires, life expectancy drops. Some call this virtual/compossible process social engineering.

On top of all this, many of the cities on the West Coast experienced a construction boom in the years before the lockdown. The market was given pretty much free rein but it spectacularly failed (and didn't care) to meet the huge demand for affordable housing. Almost all that went up were luxury apartment buildings, some of which are now empty or incomplete. But, of course, common sense does not register overproduction or compound growth as wasteful.

There is a bus stop next to the intersection of Yesler Way and 23rd Avenue that tells the whole story. Behind this place of waiting is Douglass-Truth Library. But that's not what I want to point out. What's of significance is, one, Metro's real-time sign at the bus stop, and, two, the intersection's stop lights. Though both are operated by the government, the lights work, and the sign is dead—and probably has been so for more than six months. How are we to explain this sorry state of affairs? By configuration space and compossiblity.

The virtual that makes the automobile experience possible is far richer, in terms of compossibles (related or linked or corresponding possibilities), than that which results in the experience of public transportation. The dearth of the latter means many of its productions are stillborn or die prematurely. A richness in compossibles presents a force in the transition to reality that's politically hard to overwhelm. But progressive programs (such as public transportation) are doomed to enter a hostile reality with little to no force. And so when they visibly struggle (or in the case of the real-time sign, totally fail), they, rather than their conditions of presentation, are blamed. This is nothing but the bottom of Kristof's reading of the Left Coast. Oregon must thank its lucky stars.

Nicholas Kristof Could Not Be More Wrong About the West Coast (2024)
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