The California Drought and Inequality: So What’s New?

There was once water here

There was once water here

At first blush, the California Drought and Inequality are not intimately related. Yes, some class warfare has broken out around water usage and new conservation rules.   But that’s not what the title of the blog post is about.  What do the California Drought and Economic Inequality in the U.S. have in common?  The answer is: Neither are nearly as unique or exceptional, as we’re prone to think, because of our blinders and narrow perspectives.  In the great span of geologic time and economic history, each problem, in it’s own realm,  is more the norm, than the exception; more typical than unusual,  It’s important to know this, because, as the adage goes, you must know your enemy to defeat him.

On the Economic Inequality side, it is gradually sinking-in that the period of (relative) equality during the roughly 40 years after World War II, is an historical anomaly for the U.S; an exceptional era, when stars were aligned to create a large middle class that included a large swathe of the “working class.”

On the Drought side, you may be very surprised to learn that the period of explosive growth in Southern California (and the rest of the Southwest) — the 1970s, 80s, and 90s — occurred during the wettest decades in the last two millennia.  Yes, that’s 2000 years, or back to “ancient times.”  That’s not at all exaggerated. Scientists at the U. of Arizona and Columbia U. have built a remarkable hydrology data base dating back to ancient times, which says that the areas we know as California and the U,S. Southwest experienced numerous droughts in the past, more severe than the current one, lasting decades, not just a few years. Read about it and listen to a riveting discussion here.  If you want more technical (and cool) information, try this and this.

Thus, water conditions in Southern California (and most of the Southwest) over the last 15 years would have been considered normal, neither unprecedented nor dire, centuries ago. The situation today is dire” only because we built civilizations where nature may not have intended.  And the technology and ingenuity to overcome nature, may have reached its limits. The situation is real bad.  Here are some amazing photographs of today’s California Dust Bowl.  These are not shown much outside California, because the disaster is proceeding too slowly for the appetites of cable and network news.

Don’t hold your breath or bet on California pistachios while waiting for cheap Mega Desalinization, though MIT is trying hard to overcome the expense and impracticalities of using sea water for drinking and irrigation.  Stay tuned.  Another avenue of hope are the amazing Israeli desalinization efforts, to the point where Israel now has more water than it can use.

In terms of the economy, the several decades from the end of World War II, through the late 1970s, which liberals view as a model for compassionate capitalism, is glaringly atypical in American history, at least back to about 1910.  Piketty & Saez, have documented that, to the satisfaction of most mainstream economists.  You can find all of that data if you start from here.  There is some evidence that Inequality was also the general rule in the U.S. for most of the 19th century, but that is much harder to confirm.

The precise conditions making it possible for wider prosperity in the decades following WW II were never sustainable; some of the factors we don’t want repeated.  The special circumstances include the Great Depression, which ushered in New Deal regulatory, tax, and labor reforms; the economic boost from World War II, the mother of all stimulus packages; and America’s emergence from the Great War as the only intact industrial economy in the world.

The best advice to Drought warriors: Start looking at the Drought as something that doesn’t just end in a few years. The best counsel for Inequality warriors: Stop looking at Inequality as something that will correct itself as soon as job growth accelerates and labor markets tighten.

One difference between the California (Southwest) Drought and Economic Inequality is that lack of water in the Region is natural (going back at least two millennia); while Inequality (arguably) is not natural, not an inevitable result of capitalism, globalization, or human DNA. The leading academic behind the view that Inequality is man made, and can be lessened considerably, with the right policies, and to the betterment of all, is Joseph Stiglitz. He’s a capitalist of the Roosevelt variety (both Teddy and FDR). He’s not a communist.

Am sure you are asking whether human caused global warming is contributing to the Great Drought, which would mean it’s not totally natural. In fact, most mainstream climate scientists believe global warming caused by humans, is exacerbating the current Drought; making it worse than it would otherwise be. You can read about some of that here and here.

Whether or not you believe the Drought or Inequality is a return to a natural state of affairs, it appears there is more hope for rebuilding the U.S. middle class, than for preserving the California life style, as we’ve known it.  There may be other good reasons for not preserving all of it.

After the U.S. middle class has been rehabilitated, they may not be flocking in such large numbers to California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas anymore.  If the Great Drought had happened sooner, the Dodgers might still be in Brooklyn.


2 thoughts on “The California Drought and Inequality: So What’s New?

  1. Russ Lehman

    Can I really be the first and only so far to comment? Interesting? Am I just an irredeemable pontificator or does water and economic inequality just not cut it as compared to Hillary?
    Anyway, good piece Irv. I’m interested in the apparent contradiction between your allegations about the likelihood that both the drought and economic inequality are more “natural” than not and are at least more likely the normal course of events while you also point out that Stigletz holds exactly the opposite, at least as regards inequality.
    Also in terms of the drought, while looking back often leads us to incessant fighting as opposed to solution gathering (with regards to public policy conundrums), it does seem important to identify and forcefully and aggressively change those policies which have (at least) contributed to the problem. California, as a state, it’s counties and towns have blindly allowed for growth knowing full well that the environment couldn’t handle it. The massive re-routing of water in California is testament only to creativity and procrastination but not meaningful long-term problem solving. I agree with Tim Egan (yesterday in the NYTimes) – if anyplace can do it it is probably CA. I just don’t know anyone can do it.


    1. Irv Lefberg

      Thanks for great comment,Russ. Your last paragraph on drought, looking past and forward, captures the political-social situation around water, growth, humans’ inability (reluctance) to think ahead , beautifully. Thanks for the addition.

      Actually this post did get a nice number of views/viewers , but alas no comments other than yours. Yes, I think attention spans are short and people tend to devote time to what’s currently new and/or hot. Hillary foundation money!!!

      I tried not to have the “contradiction” you referenced. I thought I was clear that both the drought and inequality were more the usual and normal state of affairs , but that drought is also (mostly) natural , but inequality not natural or inevitable. I think we agree. The Stiglitz work is great on that point. Thanks again for comment.



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