What California can learn from Yasiel Puig: Don’t hold down the young

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Yasiel Puig at bat. Photo by kla4067/ Creative Commons/ Flickr

There’s a nasty California disease spreading so fast that even our baseball teams have caught it.

Last year, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim kept their best player, then-20-year-old Mike Trout, in the minor leagues for the first month of the Major League Baseball season. This year, the L.A. Dodgers held down their most talented player, 21-year-old Yasiel Puig, for the first two months. Both teams felt their player was too young and needed more seasoning, and both teams paid a heavy price. The Angels fell into a deep hole in that first month from which they never recovered. The Dodgers, without Puig, fell into last place (and then, once he came up to the big leagues, surged into first).

But don’t be too hard on the Angels or Dodgers. In California, delaying the progress of ambitious young people has become standard operating procedure.

A bachelor’s degree used to be a four-year project. Now, thanks to generations of cuts, Californians compare university graduation rates at a six-year standard.  At the entry level of education, we’ve helped balance the budget in recent years by raising the minimum age for starting kindergarten.

Young people used to buy homes. Now, especially in the coastal cities, high prices force couples to wait years longer than the average in other states. This is one reason why California’s home ownership rate, 54.5 percent, badly lags the national rate of 65 percent.

In hiring, California offers a double whammy of delay: a comparatively high unemployment rate and a high number of unfilled jobs. To put it another way, young people can’t find work, which means they can’t get experience and skills, which means the jobs employers wish to fill lack qualified candidates.

California’s budget system squeezes the universities and favors debt over new investment. Our tax system famously requires new homeowners and businesses to pay more in property taxes than their established counterparts. And we lavishly subsidize the old. Even if the old are felons. One reason our prisons cost so much is that prisoners are kept inside until they are decrepit and require extensive medical care.

Californians love to debate whether we’re driving billionaires out of the state. But the wealthiest Californians are actually the demographic most likely to stick around. We should worry about people who are more likely to leave the state: college students who can’t find a spot in our public universities and young families who can’t afford a home.

California’s leaders ought to embrace an agenda focused on how to do better by the young and hungry people who represent the state’s future. But such a futuristic outlook isn’t a natural fit for a state political elite that is extraordinarily long in the tooth. Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer are in their 70s; Dianne Feinstein, at 80, is the oldest current member of the U.S. Senate. Antonio Villaraigosa, whose future is speculated about as though he were a young, up-and-coming politician, is 60. Our youngsters, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, 45, and Attorney General Kamala Harris, 48, will soon be old enough to join AARP.

Meanwhile, everyone’s getting older. Children, who made up one-third of the state population in 1970, are projected to be only one-fifth of the population by 2030, according to USC demographer Dowell Myers. Los Angeles, once synonymous in the popular imagination with youth, is now getting older faster than other major American cities.

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, where I live today. I like to drive around and admire all the old homes, but I’m shocked at how much of the fruit on the old trees is left to fall, rotten, to the ground. My exterminator says that’s why the area has so many rodents. It’s as though we Californians have forgotten the most basic of lessons: When the new fruit ripens, you have to pick it.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.