23 December 2016

California vs. West Virginia: A Question About Which Direction the Country is Heading

Even some of my California friends had posted things like, "If you subtract California from the national vote, Trump won the popular vote." My counter to this is, "If you subtract the former confederacy from the national vote, Clinton won by 6.5 million votes."

Apparently there are folks threatening to boycott California because the state is out of sync with Trump nation. Such sentiments inspired this tweet:

Trump won by his biggest margin in West Virginia, by 42.2%. Clinton won by her biggest margin in California, by 30.4%. Let's compare those states and consider what it means to dismiss California as a place that is out of touch with the rest of the country.

California ranks third for median household income.

West Virginia ranks 49th.

California is the most populous state in the union. In 1950 it had 10.7 million and now it has about 40 million, nearly 4X as many. The simple fact that California has grown so rapidly is testament to its ability to create jobs.

West Virginia had 2 million people in 1950. Today it has 1.8 million, a drop of 10%. West Virginia has not been able to create jobs or even a net gain in population.

If you believe that people just are who people are, you might think that it makes sense that West Virginia would register a protest vote against the status quo. It's had trouble in this new economy and of course those poor people will vote for change. But if you believe that people are who their institutions are - if you believe that we're defined by our culture, schools, media, government, policies, and prevailing norms - then it is a terrible thing to follow the lead of a place like West Virginia. Why? Because the policies and norms it has chosen has made its people less able to thrive in the modern economy. History shows us that it's not how hard people work or who they are genetically that determines how prosperous they are. It is, instead, the systems they work with and within. Incomes were 6 to 8X higher in 2000 than they were in 1900 in spite of the average workweek dropping from 60 hours to 40. Incomes weren't higher because people were "better." They were higher because people learned, worked in, and were able to use better systems. If you believe that people can't change, than West Virginia was right to vote for different policies and leaders than California; if you believe that people can change and there is no intrinsic reason that West Virginia can't be as prosperous as California than it's a terrible thing that the nation is now going to follow after policies West Virginia voters think sound great rather than the ones that Californian voters think would be great. West Virginia's thinking doesn't make its people as prosperous as California's.

Here are just a few fundamental issues that Californians would find alarming in Trump's policies that apparently comfort West Virginians: immigration, free trade, and free religion.

California has the largest share of foreign-
born people, West Virginia the lowest. 
Trump wants to limit immigration, both legal and illegal. California is a land of immigrants. About 40% of Silicon Valley startups have at least one foreign founder. On a personal note, I was working with a startup on Google's campus this year and one of the departments (robotic sensors) had five people from five countries: the US, Iran, Italy, Poland, and South Korea. It's a global economy and California doesn't just sell to customers from all over the world, it hires and partners with people from all over the world.

Trump has chastised Apple for manufacturing its iPhone in China. He doesn't really like free trade and has threatened to levy a 35% tariff against Mexico and a 45% tariff against China. This could easily start a trade war. (Does anyone believe that other countries will merely pay huge tariffs and allow the US to continue to sell into their markets without levying an offsetting tariff? How naive do you have to be to believe that?) But it also misses the point. 75% of iPhones are sold outside of the US. Apple is headquartered in the US but it is an international company with an international product, customers, suppliers and partners. This is true of most of the products coming out of Silicon Valley, from Intel's chips to Uber's app.

Finally, Trump wants to limit the immigration of Muslims. This is a special kind of exclusion that is not only anti-constitutional (read the first amendment to be reminded that Congress shall pass no law regarding religion) but shows a complete confusion about where creativity comes from. Trump knows which religion is right and which is not. Really creative people don't even know which process is best or which theory will hold up for a century or will be dis-proven tomorrow. Freedom of thought - freedom to question or challenge established "truths" is fundamental to creativity. It's no accident that the free speech movement began in Berkeley just as the computer revolution was beginning. Freedom of religion is elementary compared to the freedom of thought needed to create new scientific theories, new social paradigms, new technologies, new businesses and new business models.

California has given birth to blue jeans, the Hollywood that generates TV shows and blockbuster movies, and a music industry that gave us acts like the Grateful Dead and the Eagles. It's been the source of so many cultural and business trends.  The most defining "industry" in California is Silicon Valley, a place that gave us Apple, Facebook, Intel, HP, Twitter, the internet, and venture capitalism. The most defining business in West Virginia is coal mining.

To this day we revere the ancient Greeks yet their golden age was only a century or two. Socrates died in 399 BC and Aristotle died in 322 BC. It was during the century or so around their lives that so much of what we know of their inventions - from philosophy to math to theater and democracy - emerged. It was an incredible time that the Greeks experienced only for awhile even though the world has felt its impact for the thousands of years since.

If this move towards West Virginia and away from California proves defining of the country's future, the US will go the way of other great and defining communities in history. We will have had our time and so much of what has come out of the US in the last century in particular is likely to continue to define the world in the way that the Athens of 4th century BC continues to define the world to this day. Civilization continues to carry forward the great inventions like money and democracy, even if it fumbles and drops them from time to time. It builds on what came before. Evolution - biological and social - doesn't throw away so much as build on. In that sense, the US of the 20th century will likely be with civilization for millennia to come. What isn't certain, though, is whether it will - like modern Greece - become just another also-ran as some other community becomes the innovators who we all follow with some odd mix of envy, reluctance, and excited mimicry.

For now, swing voters in the US have decided to follow the lead of a state that hasn't invented a new industry since coal mining in the 1740s rather than a state that is even now incubating industries as different as self-driving cars and genetic engineering. It's chosen to try going back to an earlier time when jobs were being created for coal miners rather than for entrepreneurs. If Trump is successful at creating such jobs it means that we'll be going in the direction of the 1700s rather than the late 2100s. That should be a sobering thought.

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