Opinion: California shouldn’t take its military economy for granted

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USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams under construction at General Dynamics NASSCO in Barrio Logan. Photo courtesy of the shipyard

California has seen astounding socio-economic and political developments over the past three decades, to the delight of some and the despair of others.

There are many reasons for this change, but perhaps the most important one was the end of the Cold War between the US-led West and the Soviet Union.

During World War II, California flourished as an industrial powerhouse for the manufacture of war weapons and became the main arena for the war against Japan with dozens of military facilities.

The Cold War quickly followed World War II, and California continued its role as the nation’s west coast arsenal. By 1953, California had overtaken New York in domestic military spending, and eventually received more than a quarter of the Pentagon‘s budget, according to 1962 research by James Clayton of Hamilton College.

“In the Golden State, defense spending has served as a monolithic catalyst that has accelerated California’s industrial expansion and population explosion over the past decade,” Clayton wrote.

Military spending fueled not only economic and population growth, especially in Southern California, but also scientific research that sparked Silicon Valley’s economic outbreak.

However, when the San Francisco Bay Area economy exploded in the 1990s, the end of the Cold War rocked Southern California’s defense industry.

Gun contracts were canceled and the Pentagon shut down many of California’s military bases, sparking a sharp recession in Southern California. More than a million people, mostly defense workers and their families, left the region for other states and took their conservative voting behavior with them.

The Exodus changed the political orientation of the region enough to overturn the entire state, as I was to describe at length in a book “The New Political Geography of California” in 2008. Most obviously, Los Angeles County, with a quarter of the state’s population, shifted from roughly evenly partisan to very democratic in the 1990s. Combined with other factors, that turned the purple state into a very blue one.

California elected Republicans in all but two presidential elections in the aftermath of World War II, until Democrat Bill Clinton took over the state in 1992. The state has voted democratically in every presidential election since the Democrats hold three-quarters of the state’s legislature with an ever larger majority and also control the state’s Congress delegation with an overwhelming majority.

This foray into history is offered because the Pentagon released its annual state spending report this month, revealing that California was $ 61 billion in 2020. That sounds like a lot, but it accounts for less than 2% of the state’s $ 3 trillion economy. Number 1 in the Pentagon, Texas currently spends $ 83 billion, or 4.6% of its economy.

Put another way, California’s defense spending in 1960 was $ 5 billion, a multiple of the state budget, but that $ 61 billion in 2020 is roughly a quarter of the state budget. It’s also only 10.3% of domestic military spending, less than California’s share of the national population.

Does it matter that the Pentagon no longer guarantees the California economy? Perhaps not, but the sharp decline in its once-powerful effects warns against taking wealth for granted. While high tech has the upper hand in Northern California these days and logistics – the movement of goods – dominates Southern California’s economy, both are fragile.

We’re seeing tech companies like Hewlett-Packard and Tesla flee to Texas and other states because of the high costs in California, and the terrible man-made securing of cargo ships in Southern California could lead shippers to seek more efficient entry points.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company dedicated to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.







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