Talk about clashing perspectives on a glass of water.

Listening to Joel Kotkin, one can imagine the glass half empty. The title of his keynote speech at Wednesday's 17th Kern Economic Summit sure points in that direction: "Kern County: Last Redoubt of the California Dream?" The state, he seemed to suggest, is being run by a bunch of borderline incompetents who've overinvested fiscal and political capital in projects like "Jerry's choo-choo" while allowing traditional infrastructure to crumble.

Thank God for Kern County, California's last bastion of sanity and common sense, he might have added.

A lot of people must be drinking out of the same glass, because at several junctures Kotkin generated knowing murmurs of agreement from the audience. 

To Jeremy Adams, the glass is half full. In fact, for the high school economics teacher and university adjunct, it's close to brimming. With hard work, a willingness to be inspired and the courage to fail, anything is achievable, he said. He's seen it happen many times.

Adams' only real concern is the commonly experienced phenomenon he called the Bakersfield Syndrome. It almost exclusively afflicts local residents in the 15-20 age range and reveals itself in declarations such as "I am so over this place!" and "This town is just too small for me."

Convince young achievers they can contribute to their hometowns in fulfilling ways and you begin to stymie the brain drain, he said. But how do we actually pull that off? By fostering, over time, a supportive civic environment led by an increasingly dynamic university, Adams told me afterward.

Obviously these were two entirely different glasses of water. Kotkin, the author of eight books on economic, political and social trends, was looking at institutions and not so much at people. 

He flashed a photo of two birthday party clowns on the Doubletree Hotel ballroom's overhead screens and identified them as the state's Sacramento leadership. That drew some laughs — and aptly summarized one of his central themes. The state, he argued, is more interested in social engineering than in practical details such as minimally maintained highways.

For California's leadership, he said, "it's all about vanity, it's all about preening, it's all about getting the attention of the media." Meanwhile, he added, "we need more highways, jobs and affordable housing."

But in Bakersfield, there's hope. This city is an "opportunity region," Kotkin said, pointing to solid job growth and affordable housing. We "dominate" within the confines of "the most 'unaffordable' housing in the country" here in California.

The difficulty of finding affordable housing in the state epitomizes how Sacramento has left the middle class behind, Kotkin said. On the plus side, he added, the housing supply shortage has done wonders for the value of his home in Orange County.

Adams and Kotkin were the final two speakers of the four-hour event, which brought together 500 business and civic leaders.

A couple of the speakers earlier in the morning drilled pretty deep.

One was Richard Gearhart, an assistant professor of economics at CSU Bakersfield.

Among his observations, gleaned from data on education and income:

• Decreasing the number of high school dropouts in Kern County by 146 students per year will increase average wages in Kern County by $298 per year. That amounts to $9,800 per year in higher wages for earning a high school diploma compared to lacking one.

• Increasing the number of college enrollees (not graduates, simply new enrollees) in Kern County by 923 students per year will increase average wages in Kern County by $130 per year. Sound insignificant? A $130 bump across the board from simply adding 923 students to a workforce of 300,000 is statistically huge, he said.

• Increasing the local economic GDP would have only 40 percent the impact that increasing the educational attainment level of 1,100 Kern County residents would have. In other words, education is by far the area's key economic driver, in part because it creates incentive for high-tech, high innovation firms to come here.

The event was presented by the Kern Economic Development Corp., CSU Bakersfield and the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.

Contact Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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