This is another one of those posts that is somewhat personal. It may strike you as self-serving. I guess it is. Yet given how much discussion there is in the news of the supposed exodus from California to Texas–my man Elon being the latest trekker–I find myself uniquely positioned to comment on the phenomenon. See, we (Linda and I) made this choice thirty years ago. And it was a choice. Not all choices are easy, and some of them are no fun. But having seen mene, mene, tekel, upharsin in bright letters on a wall of Dwinelle Hall at Berkeley, we packed up our tent, shook the dust of Berkeley from our feet, and departed. It was an upheaval in our personal and professional lives, and it has left its traces on both of us. No one made us do anything. It was a choice.
Some of our motivation was no different from that driving people from California today. We were simply in the vanguard. I sympathize when I hear people asking why they should spend $3,500 a month to live in a cardboard box? We had the same reaction, mutatis mutandis. One form of entertainment (no price) we enjoyed in Berkeley was to walk down Solano Avenue and look in the real estate office windows. We made few friends among the estate agents. That’s because we tended to point, look at each other, and then dissolve into laughter. Our mirth was usually accompanied by (my) profane comment on how out of their mind these NorCals seemed to be–NorCals being denizens of Northern California. We were not good for business. Typically, you could see them glaring at us like street urchins in a Dickens novel who needed “to move along.” And we did. The source of our amusement was the asking price for a less-than-modest bungalow in Albany (CA), not the toniest address in the East Bay. We were accustomed to Philadelphia real estate prices. Frankly, we thought we had landed on Mars. We had.
We lived first in Albany in a “garden apartment” which was a euphemism for a step or two above a garage. Actually, we were above a garage, I think. We lucked out and by the grace of connections, ended up living in South Berkeley on Durant Avenue in a rent-controlled apartment. You know what the Econ 1 books all say about rent control? All true. If there was a worse idea designed to provided affordable housing for the masses, I guess it must have been the apartment blocks at Chernobyl. I’m sure they we rent controlled too. But I digress.
Rent control actually enters tangentially into this story, but I don’t want to turn this into a simple lecture about markets and what happens when you mess with them in unconstructive ways. Yet I always have the feeling that Americans swear by markets, yet really don’t know the first thing about them. They go on about freedom, but they don’t understand that one of the functions of a market is to exclude (“price out”). Oh, yeah, in theory, everybody can live in Berkeley. When I went out to Cal for an interview, they took me on what I call the Temptation of Christ tour. The high point was somewhere around the Lawrence Hall of Science, up in the Berkeley Hills. There’s a spot where you get this panoramic view of the Bay Area, from up in Marin and then down the peninsula. The sunlight is glimmering (if it ain’t raining) off the Bay and you can look out through the Golden Gate into the Pacific. So they take you up there and say, sort of “All this, Fool, can be yours, if you will only fall down and worship the University of California.” Hey, wow. Where do I sign? The kid from South Philly-West Philly ain’t never seen nothing like this, all shiny and gleaming and windy and soulful and shit.
Problem was (and is) those nice little shacks up there are today going for North of 2 million dollars–well North. As an Acting Assistant Professor Step 1 (UC-ese for peon de trabajo), I was making, well, about 17K. I know. We don’t go into this to get rich. We want to shape the future. We want to make a difference. We want to shape our fields. And this is The Top Job In Your Field, which no one, I mean no one, is good enough for. I get it. Believe me. When Governor Moonbeam (Jerry Brown) told us were were working for psychic income, I didn’t jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. I took up running. And swimming. I got to the point where I could make the Fire Trail in Strawberry Canyon and then go for a swim. Being pissed off (and broke) is great motivation. I could have joined the frigging Marines in the shape I was in. But I couldn’t afford a $500,000 dog house. That wasn’t happening.
I’m going to skip the Academic Snakepit stories. Really, I got used to it. You learn, as a colleague of mine once said, “Lie to Everyone.” So I did. Which I why I don’t do it anymore. Then another colleague bawled me out for following “A Categorical Imperative to Tell the Truth.” Berkeley was many things. Dull wasn’t one of them. It was like working in the Kremlin with good coffee. One day you lied. The next day you were earnest. Then you went back to your apartment and had a drink and tried to figure out an escape plan.
No one has a God-given right to live in California. Your friendly local economic historian understands that better than most. You are Free to Choose (we met Uncle Milty at the San Francisco Fed, a great story I’ll save for another time, but I always liked and respected him). Not all choices are equally attractive. Adam Smith never said seek and you’ll always find the Golden Ring. That’s not the way it works. My historian friends who hate bourgeois economics tend not to understand this. It’s not the math they can’t understand (that doesn’t help). It’s the no free lunch part that they can’t swallow. But this is Trump’s America, so why waste my breath? Everyone’s entitled, right? That’s freedom. No taxes, no masks, no problem.
Texas was a lot hotter and a lot cheaper. The Econ will instinctively get this: the one compensates for the other. We started over in South Texas but Linda was attractive enough to Trinity for Trinity to hire me. And that’s the truth. Usually, at least back then, the only thing that motivated spousal hires was you liked the one you had and you’d take a chance on the one you didn’t. Or maybe lose both. And, LOL, saying you recruited someone from Berkeley didn’t hurt. I did get my revenge you see: I cashed out. In all seriousness, Linda did for me what I couldn’t do for her. So we lived happily ever after, with cats, kids, even a house. None of that was going to happen in California. For that, we had to come to Texas. Frankly, all kidding aside, it was a good move, even if most of my overambitious academic friends could never understand it (and told me so). Now, Mark White was Governor when we got here and Ann Richards, God Love her, was still around. The Democrats still seemed to have some juice here then. We could go into a long post mortem about what happened, but then we’d have to go back to Dallas and Jack Kennedy and John Connally, at least, and that wouldn’t start to scratch the surface. Yeah, Texas has changed–and, no, I’m not convinced it’s going to turn blue any time soon. You never know. Greg Abbott is such a schmuck even the Republicans don’t much like him. We’ll see.
Here’s the thing. A lot of people coming from California to Texas are not Liberals. A friend of mine told me his daughter moved from California to Texas “To get away from the Nanny State.” I suspect she’s not alone. You wonder how much of this migration is self-selected? Real estate in California was only insane in 1980. Now it’s incomprehensible. They’re going to have to restart indentured servitude there to afford service workers. But, in the meantime, I must tell you, humanity is resilient, and you can learn to put up with almost anything. Even Texas in the Summer. At least I can. So, if you don’t get greedy, having a roof over your head and three squares makes you tolerate otherwise unpleasant stuff. That’s the secret of Texas. You don’t have to love it. You just have to live here. Pace Jerry Brown and psychic income, California proved to me that you can’t live on love or eat prestige. But I had to learn the hard way.