According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California’s leading exports are computers and electronic products. But these days, it feels like the top exports are jobs, residents and misguided public policy. Companies such as Tesla, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle — once staples of Silicon Valley — are moving to more employment-friendly pastures. And many Californians are moving with them.
This trend is reflected in the latest census figures; California soon will lose a congressional seat for the first time in history.
The exodus from California did not happen by chance. It is the foreseeable result of bad laws. If localities make it harder to build homes, housing becomes unaffordable. If the legislature puts up barriers to starting a business, there will be fewer jobs. If licensure boards make it impossible for those with a criminal record to get a job, they’re more likely to turn back to crime. Poor regulation begets poverty.
In response, some cities have doubled down on bad policy ideas, proposing “anti-poverty” programs in the form of universal basic income or even an exit tax on those who would leave. Rather than resorting to more short-sighted regulation, here are three places where policymakers can roll back the red tape to promote opportunity within California:
Repeal AB5 and other job-killers: Assembly Bill No. 5, which reclassified thousands of independent contractors as “employees,” has destroyed economic opportunity for many Californians. Journalists, translators, after-school program providers, auctioneers, theatre actors and countless others were deemed full-blown employees overnight, requiring companies to shoulder massive new costs.
The bill negated voluntary arrangements by companies and independent contractors and caused many freelance jobs to disappear altogether. In response, California news outlets hired out-of-state journalists to write on local issues. Music festivals folded because they no longer could pay musicians. Even Uber and Lyft threatened to leave California until residents overwhelmingly voted to exempt them from the burdens of AB5. Drivers were some of the most vocal advocates for that result, explaining they chose freelancing instead of full-time employment because it offered them flexibility and suited their needs.
California should take heed and allow everyone the freedom to freelance.
Make it easier for everyone to get a job: Employment greatly reduces the chances that a person with a criminal record will return to crime, yet California makes it hard to get a job. California runs the most onerous licensing regime in the nation, requiring licenses not just for doctors or lawyers but also for tree trimmers, locksmiths, animal trainers, make-up artists, unarmed security guards and many more. The burdens can be substantial — one must pay $375 to get licensed as a travel agent or spend $529 and 1,460 hours to get licensed as a tree trimmer.
That’s hard for anyone trying to enter a licensed trade, but it’s even harder for people with criminal records, who often lack the means to complete the process. Worse, even if ex-offenders can save up enough money to pay the licensing fees and undergo the educational requirements, the state sometimes disqualifies them solely based on their criminal histories. One of the most perverse examples is how California treated people with criminal records after they helped fight the state’s wildfires in 2018. Despite training prisoners to save people’s homes from destruction, the state categorically prohibited many such prisoners from becoming firefighters once they were released.
The state has made modest reforms in recent years. Now, an ex-offender may not be disqualified from a license unless the crime was committed in the previous seven years and is “substantially related” to the job. Still, there’s more the state could do to ease the burdens of occupational licensure and make sure everyone can access a job.
School choice: Nothing has done more damage to teachers unions’ reputations than the policies they pursued during COVID-19. Despite science backing up in-person schooling, despite that teachers were given priority access to vaccines, and despite myriad studies demonstrating the emotional and long-term economic impact of distance learning, several districts still refuse to go back to in-person teaching full time. In some districts, even those children allowed to go to school in person are forced to sit and watch their teachers from a screen as they teach remotely.
All this is made worse by the fact that California disallows tax credits or vouchers for private schools, thereby limiting families’ ability to flee underperforming public schools. This disproportionately hurts low-income families, who are often looking for a lifeline out of failing neighborhood schools.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, people need opportunity more than ever. California should eliminate government barriers to employment and education and give Californians the freedom to thrive.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on May 17, 2021.