Vox: How 2 state legislatures are quietly making America a better place
By Dylan Matthews
California’s changes are of national importance
As Congress geared up for the latest effort to repeal Obamacare, the California state legislature passed a package of bills to address its housing crisis. This isn’t just a California concern. As my colleague Matt Yglesias has repeatedly explained, the high cost of living in America’s most productive regions (like Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, but also New York, DC, and Boston) hurts the American economy as a whole.
The University of Chicago’s Chang-Tai Hsieh and UC Berkeley’s Enrico Moretti estimate that restrictions on building housing cut US economic growth in half from 1964 to 2009. Another paper of their estimates that if high-productivity cities like San Francisco and San Jose were to only restrict housing development as much as the typical city — and not the crazy amount they do restrict it — US GDP would grow 9.5 percent. Those are bananas numbers, and suggest that removing barriers to development in California and other rich areas is of huge national importance.
Luckily, the California legislature has voted to remove some of those barriers. Both the assembly and the state Senate have passed SB 35, a proposal from freshman state Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco. The law would crack down on cities that undersupply housing by expediting approval for new building projects in municipalities that are undershooting their housing goals. Gov. Jerry Brown still needs to sign it, but Brown supports the bill and it’s all but a done deal.
One bill can’t fix the California housing crisis. But SB 35 is a big step in the right direction, and will enable more people to move to hugely productive areas of California and grow the American economy as a whole. The whole country should be celebrating.
Same goes for the landmark climate change legislation California passed this year. With bipartisan backing, the state extended its cap-and-trade program through to 2030. The legislation built on SB 32, a bill passed in 2016 that mandated a 40 percent reduction in emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2030. "It’s hard to overstate how ambitious this is," Brad Plumer wrote for Vox at the time. "Few countries have ever achieved cuts this sharp while enjoying robust economic growth." Achieving that goal will be difficult, and would’ve been more difficult if the cap and trade program had lapsed, a real possibility due to legal challenges. So this year, the legislature protected cap and trade.
These are pretty quick glosses on three complicated policy achievements. Some environmental justice groups think California’s climate bills haven’t gone far enough, and do little to help people living near polluters. SB 35 doesn’t totally eliminate the ability of local policymakers to use zoning and other levers to keep out newcomers. Some local leaders, like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, have been grumbling that bail reform lets too many accused criminals out on the street, despite the accompanying drop in crime; if they grumble louder, the reforms could be in danger.
But it’s important to know that big improvements in people’s lives can and do happen at the state level. They’re complex and caveated and don’t go far enough — but such is the story of all government action. This year, California and New Jersey legislators have passed and overseen, respectively, measures that will make America as a whole substantially better off. They may not get the attention of Republican legislative chicanery in Congress or state-level Republican law to suppress voting. But these efforts deserve attention and commendation.