Has California Lost The Mandate of Heaven?
October 29, 2019
At that point, it's too late: there's no bid for overpriced decaying bungalows, overpriced tech stocks, etc.
In Chinese history, natural disasters were viewed as portents that the The Mandate of Heaven (tianming or "Heaven's will") had been withdrawn from the ruling dynasty. Broadening this concept a bit to regional dominance and power, we might ask: has California lost the Mandate of Heaven?
How many conflagrations does it take for it to sink in that the Golden State has lost its lustre in some profoundly karmic fashion?
How many messes of human excrement on our doorstep does it take to realize the situation will never get better, it can only get worse--much worse?
How many power blackouts, traffic gridlocks and mandatory evacuations does it take for those in denial to accept that the Mandate of Heaven has been withdrawn?
Young residents of the state have never experienced the velocity and depth of California's famous busts. The last real spot of bother in California's economy occurred almost 30 years ago in the early 1990s. Since then, it's been one boom after another.
California's cycles of enormous booms followed by equally gargantuan busts date back to the first Gold Rush. The eventual collapse of mining shares and overpriced real estate in San Francisco was epic, and Mark Twain's account of his chest full of mining shares going from a tidy fortune to zip-zero-nada is a rueful reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn in the land of boom and bust.
It's deceptively easy to take a pencil and ruler and extend a boom into infinity: the number of iPhones sold (always up), Apple's quarterly earnings (always up), property tax revenues (always up) stocks' multiple expansion ((always up) and so on.
California's vast chattering class has ridden the IPO/VC/tech-monopoly/ stock buyback bubble for so long that it can't believe the bubble could ever burst. This class lives in enclaves protected from human excrement, the addicted and the deranged, and in an information enclave of me-too tech/entertainment boosterism.
But as Benoit Mandelbrot showed in his book The (Mis)behavior of Markets, markets and human behavior are inherently fractal, i.e. chaotic, which means there are limits on the predictability of markets and economic trends.
Thus the chattering class has no inkling that the masses can cancel their Netflix, Disney and Apple subscriptions as easily as they signed on. Once jobs, tips, bonuses and gigs dry up, the tech-entertainment giants will find expenses are still rising while revenues are cratering. Once revenues and profits crater, it's harder for management to justify borrowing billions more to fund more stock buybacks.
Extending booms into infinity doesn't track reality. The last real recession circa 1990-1991 blew a $20 billion hole in the California state budget, and accounting for inflation and growth since then, we can expect a $35 - $40 billion hole being blown in the budget once the IPO / tech bubble collapses, as the state is heavily dependent on capital gains taxes for much of its income tax revenues. (There is no long-term capital gains rate in California; all capital gains are taxed as ordinary income, a rate that quickly hits 13.3%.)
Once capital gains dry up, the state is in a fiscal crisis with no solution.
And if the state can't solve the homeless crisis with current spending in the hundreds of millions, then what will happen when the revenues dry up? What will happen if the homeless population doubles or triples? Look at the social havoc generated by the homeless population in San Francisco, which is roughly 1% of the total populace (around 9,000 homeless and a total population of 860,000.)
Phase transitions are intrinsic to systems displaying self-organized criticality such as markets and human behavior. Everything seems fine on the surface, and there's no pressing need to sell the house and move away; there seems to be plenty of time until the phase transition kicks in and suddenly everything has changed for the worse, and so much faster than anyone expected.
At that point, it's too late: there's no bid for overpriced decaying bungalows, overpriced tech stocks, etc. Just like Mark Twain's chest of mining stocks, the transition from being worth a fortune to no-bid near-worthlessness can be sudden indeed once California loses the Mandate of Heaven.
Beneath the surface, pressures are building and resilience is eroding, and when the tipping point is reached the transition will not be gradual and controllable, it will be non-linear and uncontrollable.
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