COMMENTARY: How California’s myopic thinking ripples through the nation

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It could be the tweetstorm that saves Christmas.

Last Thursday, Ryan Petersen, chief executive of logistics company Flexport, rented a boat to look at what was happening at the port of Long Beach, Calif. Friday, he took to Twitter to report what he’d learned about why two of the nation’s largest ports — Long Beach and Los Angeles — have come to a virtual standstill.

“In a full 3 hour loop through the port complex, passing every single terminal, we saw less than a dozen containers get unloaded,” he wrote. There were plenty of cranes, he observed, but nearly every spot holding containers was filled. With empties clogging the available space, new containers carrying goods from sea or land had nowhere to go.

It turned out the main problem wasn’t an absolute space constraint but a local zoning regulation. Long Beach prohibits companies from stacking offloaded containers more than two high. The law is not a safety regulation. City officials decided stacks of containers more than eight feet high were too ugly.

The situation exemplifies why the formerly can-do state of California has become such a difficult place to build anything. In the name of protecting local vistas, a seemingly minor rule got enacted that exacted enormous aggregate costs far beyond the immediate area. The voters in Long Beach gained a modest improvement in view while the entire national — indeed global — economy suffered from less efficient shipping. The benefits of the policy are concentrated while the costs are dispersed. Under ordinary circumstances, most of those hurt have no idea what’s happening.

Petersen’s tweetstorm made the inside information public at a moment when political leaders, including President Joe Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, had issued executive orders aimed at alleviating supply-chain problems. Petersen came off as a voice of common sense speaking for the public interest. Almost immediately, Long Beach’s city manager waived the stacking restriction for 90 days, allowing four or, in some cases, five containers in a single stack.

Californians don’t hate business. But they’re myopic, especially if they’ve lived in the state for decades. They love California’s lifestyle so much that they tend not to think about the consequences of even seemingly small restrictions – especially if those affected aren’t already in the neighborhood.

How could it be bad to require a new apartment to include a couple of parking places? Or to limit the heights of buildings on commercial boulevards to 45 feet?

The California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA, was designed to protect air, water and open space. But it has become a tool for blocking new urban housing and even construction designed to get homeless residents off the sidewalks.

It didn’t take long for Southern California housing advocates to draw the parallels to the port debacle. “I’m still laughing about how a key contributing factor in the global supply chain crisis is a local ordinance meant to protect people from seeing the boxes that all of our junk from Amazon arrives in,” tweeted Culver City Mayor Alex Fisch, an advocate of easing restrictions on housing construction.

What California needs now is the equivalent of a boat tour of the entire regulatory harbor – and the public willingness to heed its lessons. It shouldn’t take a national supply-chain crisis to remind us how destructive NIMBYism can be.

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