Some Local Problems Are Global?

By Robert Bernstein   |   March 28, 2023

Communities all over California are struggling to meet a mandate to build more housing. This dates back to a 1969 “Housing Element” law, now in its sixth round. The current mandate is for 3.5 million new units by the year 2025. The state is far short of meeting that goal and local governments face penalties if the goal is not met.

The Santa Barbara area is a thin strip of land between the ocean and the mountains, with little space left to expand. With sea levels rising due to the Climate Crisis, we may lose existing precious land and housing.

Other parts of the state complain that regulations delay design and construction. The current Housing Element includes specific remedies to relax these regulations to expedite construction.

The current situation leaves over 160,000 people homeless in California and millions making long commutes, at high environmental and personal cost.

It is easy to say that nice weather attracts homeless people to California. Hawaii also has a high rate of homelessness. But New York has the highest rate of homelessness in the U.S., and it does not have such nice weather.

I want to consider another factor that I rarely hear about. When I was a college student in Boston in the 1970s, President Carter deregulated the airlines. When airlines were regulated, profitable routes were charged a small fee to subsidize less profitable routes—places sometimes called “flyover country.” My college lady friend was from Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the heart of “flyover country.”

Deregulation immediately caused a steep increase in fares for her to fly home. In fact, it was worse than that. Many “flyover” cities were effectively abandoned and left stranded. Her trip home meant sitting on a Greyhound bus for over 24 hours.

Bob Crandall is the former President and CEO of American Airlines. In a 2008 interview he noted that deregulation led to a decline in “fleet age, service quality and international reputation.” But he went on to say, “… you’ll see there’s a whole lot of places in the country that used to be part of the network that aren’t anymore. I think that has accelerated the movement of people towards the big cities and has discouraged the creation of medium-sized cities … I think that’s adverse to the economy and adverse to the country.”

People didn’t leave all those “flyover” cities because of the weather. My lady friend was very proud of her city. As Crandall explained, they left because they were abandoned by airline deregulation. It is not easy to do business in a city if it is unaffordable or even impossible to fly there. And if businesses leave, workers are forced to leave.

Perhaps one solution to our California homeless problem is to go back to airline regulation that allows cities in the Midwest to thrive and grow? I personally would be very happy to pay a fee on my flight from L.A. to Boston in order to keep people happy in the Midwest, so they don’t all move here!

Another example of my point: When I first came to California with that lady friend after college in 1980, we lived near Berkeley, so she could finish school at UC Berkeley. There was a bad recession, and I did not want to take military-related work. With my MIT Physics degree, I ended up taking a technician job in a factory in Richmond.

Coming from Boston, Richmond superficially looked nice. Boston weather leaves things dirty and Richmond looked relatively clean. But I quickly realized it was a very dangerous place. Unemployment was around 90 percent, I was told. What had been a nice downtown was all boarded up. I was mystified. What had happened to downtown Richmond to cause all these businesses to fail?

It took a long time for me to realize that downtown Richmond had done nothing wrong. What had happened? Hilltop Mall was built five miles away. It sucked the economic life blood from downtown Richmond. Many working-class people there did not have a car and there was no easy way to get to Hilltop.

Local floods and droughts caused by the climate crisis are another example.

“Think globally, act locally” is attributed to René Dubos in 1977 and to others, going back to Patrick Geddes in 1915. These examples show us that we have to think beyond local, perhaps globally, to understand local problems. And we must act both globally and locally.  


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