California, once disdained as zany, insubstantial and politically unreliable, has now become a favorite of the blue state crew. From culture and technology to politics, the Golden State is getting all sorts of kudos from an establishment media traditionally critical of our state.

For example, the New York Times recently ran two pieces, one political and the other cultural, that praised this state for its innovation and cool – even in the midst of a horrendous drought.

And to be sure, it’s nice to be a pet – at least I hope that’s what our dog Roxie feels. But we may want to understand why those who traditionally lambasted California now grant us their favors. Although some praise is deserved – both the economy and the cultural scene in California have improved somewhat – much of this shift reflects changes in the political and media culture itself.

How a writer looks at California can be increasingly predicted by the writer’s political orientation. For liberals, the nasty California that produced both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan has been supplanted by a cooler, greener and more socially progressive state. If you are on the Right, California is beloved for reasons of nostalgia; for the Left, California is where the future once again is being shaped. Those of us more in the middle are simply unsure of what to think.

Big on Brown

Once upon a time, Jerry Brown did not get much respect among the liberal establishment. His sometimes-unconventional views made him the butt of jokes, including the classic description of him as “Gov. Moonbeam.” Today, a much older, and perhaps more conventional Brown has become the toast of progressive America.

In many ways, Brown presaged many of the current trends in progressive thinking. For one thing, Brown – like much of the Democratic elite – does not much identify with middle- and working-class concerns, notably old social democratic ideals of upward mobility. Instead of tackling poverty and stagnation by creating good middle-class jobs, Brown blames the state’s high poverty rate on our “incredible attractiveness,” not on some fundamental economic flaw. This viewpoint seems not to offend some of the very people who, in other cases, rail against rising inequality and poverty.

Brown’s almost single-minded focus on climate change also fits well with a Democratic Party whose ideology – and funding base – is increasingly dominated by this issue. He also, at least for now, can claim that he has tried to save the planet while improving the economy.

Certainly, California now provides a better role model than does President Obama’s hometown, the nearly bankrupt Chicago, or New York’s thuggish Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Meanwhile, the governors of many comeback states – Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Florida, along with the new governor of Illinois – are, inconveniently, Republicans.

California’s economic comeback is increasingly offered as evidence that high taxes, ever greater regulation and environmental jihadism does not necessarily conflict with economic growth. And, to be sure, California recently has been performing well; the past year’s job growth has been impressive, outdistancing even Texas in new jobs.

But this result is not as spectacular as the New York Times suggests. This past year, California added some 450,000 jobs, versus 311,000 for the Lone Star State. Once adjusted for population, this comes out to roughly the same rate of growth. Several other states actually outperformed California, including our Western neighbors Utah, Washington and Oregon, as well as Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Taking a longer-term view, the picture becomes far less positive. California’s gain has come late in the current economic cycle and, to some extent, reflects the recovery of jobs that had been lost. California’s job growth during 2007-14 stood at a meager 0.7 percent, matching the tepid national level and well below the 11.2 percent enjoyed by Texas. California gained 120,000 net jobs during those years, less than one-tenth the net gain in the Lone Star State.

This recovery has also been hugely dominated by the San Francisco Bay Area. Most California metropolitan areas – including the Southland – generally have been performing at or below the national average. The state still suffers the country’s fifth-highest unemployment rate, with a labor-force participation rate considerably below the national average. It suffers the nation’s highest poverty rate, in large part due to regulatory restraints on housing. We may be minting Hollywood and Silicon Valley billionaires, but also are supporting one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients.

Not all this poverty is in the inland areas. Our big cities also are poster children for the great progressive issue of income inequality, with three of the top 10 – San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland – ranked among the nation’s worst by Brookings. Our middle class is evaporating even more quickly, by some estimates, than in any other state.

So how then does Jerry Brown and California get portrayed as great role models? One doubts that, if Pete Wilson were still governor, we would be regaled with tales of a “California comeback” but would be subjected to stories about outrageous wealth flourishing next to entrenched poverty in our cities and growing impoverishment of the Central Valley. But, now that there’s a progressive in charge, never mind.

Hipsters like crowded

In many ways the Times’ cultural praise for California, particularly Los Angeles, is more deserved. The area, along with New York, has long had the highest concentration of artists in the nation, anchored not only by Hollywood but a large fashion sector, a strong design industry and a powerful music scene. But what makes Los Angeles so attractive to the New York hipsters, they suggest, is that Southern California has become “less suburban today” and thus more like New York, with a shrinking percentage of owner-occupied houses and ever more congested streets.

The idea of a denser and more urban Los Angeles appeals to many progressives, planners and urban boosters, who, like the density-oriented Atlantic Cities website, regard it as America’s “biggest anti-sprawl success story.” Yet, while trying to accommodate the latest hipster infestation, the core city of Los Angeles is in secular decline, according to its own accounting, and also is losing substantial numbers of trained professionals since the recession.

Manhattanizing Los Angeles has not done much for the economy and does not seem the best way to turn it around. New York, my hometown, is unique and cannot be easily imitated; it took centuries to get that way. Los Angeles has thrived by growing differently, with numerous subcenters and varied venues for artists. A dispersed cultural mecca, often randomly organized and constantly shifting, it has always been very different from the almost unbearably self-conscious arts community in New York.

Rather than try to imitate Manhattan or brownstone Brooklyn, Southern California needs to embrace its traditional incoherence and status as an incubator for outsiders and oddballs. It is a creative center defined less by its local magazines than by various tribes who often function in splendid isolation, with little regard for taste-makers. This is what has made our region, and our state, so historically different from the East.

Yet, current trends are threatening this spirit. The arrival en masse of Wall Street’s viper class in Silicon Valley, and the presence of Harvard MBAs in the corridors of Hollywood studios, does not bode well for California’s traditional independence. We used to be a state that gave relative unknowns – A.P. Giannini, Jack Warner, Howard Ahmanson Sr., Bob Noyce and Jerry Buss – an open canvas on which to paint their capitalist magic. The Eastern engagement of California threatens this proud tradition.

Being like New York – crowded and hectic but with better weather – is not exactly the future most people seek in California. I know few adults who look forward to giving up tree-lined sun-drenched residential streets for dark apartment warrens. It was better when the Eastern press laughed at us, since we always knew that we owned the better part of the deal. Now they are both praising us and becoming us and, in the process, challenging the very things that have made this such a special place.

Originally published by Orange County Register.

Cross-posted at New Geography.