The COVID-19 pandemic has become the go-to excuse for pretty much everything these days, from reduced public services and limited business operations to what have you. My favorite recent example was a vending machine that featured a sign declaring that it was not in service because of COVID, as if feeding a dollar bill into a machine threatened my well-being.

These are minuscule issues — first-world problems, as my kids like to say — but I’d have an easier time with the ongoing stupidity if the business placed a sign on the machine stating that it’s simply not worth the effort to stock it with sodas. I’ve missed deadlines because of vacation, but from now on I’m sticking with COVID. Not that I’ve had it, but the thought has reduced my productivity.

And so I read with amusement the California Department of Finance’s explanation for why the Golden State has for the second consecutive year lost population. The department’s report pointed to fewer births, declining immigration, and — you guessed it — deaths related to the pandemic (56,000) and a loss of international students due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Even with those numbers considered, the state is losing population.

Reporters and demographers are downplaying the loss of 173,000 people as minuscule, but they’re ignoring the long-term trends that have shown slowing growth and now losses. In other states, population numbers don’t affect the psyche, but Californians have long viewed our state as a magnet — a scenic, warm-weather wonderland that beckons people from across the world.

It really hurts to be among the ranks of population losers. California had a bigger per-capita loss than Mississippi, West Virginia, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. Only Illinois, New York, and the District of Columbia fared worse — and those states don’t have outdoor palm trees, rugged coastlines, and 14,000-foot mountains. No wonder a cottage industry explains away what’s before our eyes.

“The public’s attention has been focused on the so-called ‘CalExodus’ phenomenon, but the reality is that the dramatic drop in ‘CalEntrances’ since the pandemic began has been a bigger driver of recent population changes in the state,” according to a statement from the California Policy Lab, which tracks demographic changes. The University of California lab also blames that phenomenon on the pandemic.

In terms of a state’s desirability, there’s not an enormously meaningful distinction between moving out and not moving in. It’s hard to pick up roots and leave one’s home, but it’s easy to say, “Heck, I’m not moving to that highly taxed and poorly governed place.” Even the report notes that, “Exits, following a dip early in the pandemic, have rebounded and are now 12 percent higher than pre-COVID levels — on pace with pre-pandemic trends.”

One need only scroll down in the Finance Department’s report to find this gem: “Since 2011, California has experienced negative net domestic migration, where the number of people moving out of the state in a year exceed the number moving in. Since 2016, net domestic outmigration has exceeded net international migration, leaving natural increase as the only source of population growth.”

The anecdotal evidence backs up the data. I’ve lived in seven states and this is the only state where my friends and neighbors continually talk about moving elsewhere. It’s not just talk, either. I have many friends who have actually left, including one who now sells real estate to busloads of Southern Californians heading to the Dallas area.

I’ve attended press conferences where fleeing business owners compare notes on the best places to go. So many Californians have fled to Boise, Idaho, that the small intermountain city now tops a list of the nation’s least-affordable housing markets (based on income levels, as well as prices). When one considers California’s incomparable scenery, entrepreneurial culture, magnificent weather and abundance of everything, this really is something.

Deniers blame the pandemic and outside forces such as federal immigration policy. What explains the internal migration figures? Many of Californian’s regions with the best weather and most-idyllic scenery are losing population, while hard-scrapple agricultural and industrial regions (the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley) still are growing. Perhaps there really is a policy problem.

Mother Nature recently (and temporarily) fixed California’s drought problem, which had been leading to the state’s usual toolbox of regulations, fines, fees, and rationing. But enough Californians recognize that California’s progressive policy makers, who control every major political office, apply the same command-and-control approach to everything. Our public services, which decades ago were among the best in the nation, are the pits.

A new American Enterprise Institute study that compares population growth and decline in the states touched on the real reasons that some states are growing and others are receding. Hint: It has nothing to do with the pandemic. The top 10 inbound states all are red (or purple) and nine of the 10 outbound states are blue ones. Might there be a connection?

California ranked poorly, of course. We received incredibly low marks for tax rates, tax burdens, debt service, workers’ compensation costs, liability issues, labor laws, etc. We received some “high” marks for the number of public employees per 10,000 population. Check out the salaries and pensions those employees receive if you want steam to come out of your ears. The only genuinely good news is in GDP and non-farm employment growth.

“Some California boosters comfort themselves by insisting the people leaving are mostly poor or old,” explained Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox in the Daily Beast. “But an analysis of IRS data from 2012 to 2019 indicates that 85 percent of those leaving are in their prime earning years of 25 to 64.” Californians are having fewer kids and, “Disadvantaged minorities and the foreign born are also heading to the exits, or simply not coming,” they added.

Image credit: Lulla

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