California Has Many Natural Advantages, But How Long Can It Survive Big Government?

From left to right: Governor Jerry Brown, D-Calif., John Kerry, D-Mass., Governor Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Governor Jay Inslee, D-Wa., meet in Governor Cuomo’s office in New York City. (Photo: Courtesy of the New York Governor’s Office)

In 2016, here’s some of what I wrote about the economic outlook in Illinois.

There’s a somewhat famous quote from Adam Smith (“there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“) about the ability of a country to survive and withstand lots of bad public policy. I’ve tried to get across the same point by explaining that you don’t need perfect policy, or even good policy. A nation can enjoy a bit of growth so long as policy is merely adequate. Just give the private sector some “breathing room,” I’ve argued.

I subsequently pointed out that politicians in Illinois were doing their best to suffocate the private sector, and also warned that a tax hike would push the state even closer to a day of reckoning.

Let’s apply this same analysis to California.

So here are some excerpts from a column I wrote about the Golden State in 2016

Something doesn’t add up. People like me have been explaining that California is an example of policies to avoid. Depending on my mood, I’ll refer to the state as the France, Italy, or Greece of the United States. But folks on the left are making the opposite argument. … statists…do have a semi-accurate point. There are some statistics showing that California has out-performed many other states over the past couple of years. … California may have enjoyed some decent growth in recent years as it got a bit of a bounce from its deep recession, but it appears that the benefits of that growth have mostly gone to the Hollywood crowd and the Silicon Valley folks. I guess this is the left-wing version of “trickle down” economics.

So what’s happened in California since I wrote that article?

Well, lots of California-type policies.

And where does that leave the state? Is California heading in the wrong direction faster or slower than Illinois?

Victor Davis Hanson’s column in Investor’s Business Daily has a grim assessment. He explains that California residents pay a lot for lousy government.

Some 62% of state roads have been rated poor or mediocre. There were more predictions of huge cost overruns and yearly losses on high-speed rail — before the first mile of track has been laid. One-third of Bay Area residents were polled as hoping to leave the area soon. Such pessimism is daily fare, and for good reason. The basket of California state taxes — sales, income and gasoline — rates among the highest in the U.S. Yet California roads and K-12 education rank near the bottom. …One in three American welfare recipients resides in California. Almost a quarter of the state population lives below or near the poverty line. Yet the state’s gas and electricity prices are among the nation’s highest. One in four state residents was not born in the U.S. Current state-funded pension programs are not sustainable. California depends on a tiny elite class for about half of its income tax revenue. Yet many of these wealthy taxpayers are fleeing the 40-million-person state, angry over paying 12% of their income for lousy public services.

In effect, statist policies have created two states, one for the rich and the other for the poor.

…two antithetical Californias. One is an elite, out-of-touch caste along the fashionable Pacific Ocean corridor that runs the state and has the money to escape the real-life consequences of its own unworkable agendas. The other is a huge underclass in central, rural and foothill California that cannot flee to the coast and suffers the bulk of the fallout from Byzantine state regulations, poor schools and the failure to assimilate recent immigrants from some of the poorest areas in the world. The result is Connecticut and Alabama combined in one state.

Jonah Goldberg is not quite as pessimistic. He opines that the state has certain natural advantages that help it survive bad policy.

California attracts an enormous number of rich people who think it’s worth the high taxes, awful traffic, and even the threat of tectonic annihilation to live there — for reasons that literally have nothing to do with the state’s liberal policies.Indeed, most of the Californians I know live there despite those policies, not because of them. No offense to South Dakota, but if it adopted the California model of heavy regulation, high taxes, and politically correct social engineering, there’d be a caravan of refugees heading to states such as Wyoming and Minnesota. …Wealthy liberal Californians can be quite smug about how they can afford their strict land-use policies, draconian environmental regulations, and high taxes. And wealthy Californians can afford them — but poor Californians are paying the price.

Regarding the state’s outlook, I’m probably in the middle. Goldberg is right that California is a wonderful place to live, at least if you have plenty of money. But Hanson is right about the deteriorating quality of life for the non-rich.

Which may explain why a lot of ordinary people are packing up and leaving.

A columnist from the northern part of the state writes about the exodus of the middle class.

The number of people packing up and moving out of the Bay Area just hit its highest level in more than a decade. …Operators of a San JoseU-Haul business say one of their biggest problems is getting its rental moving vans back because so many are on a one-way ticket out of town. …Nationwide, the cities with the highest inflows, according to Redfin are Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Nashville.

And a columnist from the southern part of the state also is concerned about the middle-class exodus.

What could immediately cripple state finances, though, is out-migration by the state’s sliver of rich taxpayers. Especially now that there’s a limit on how much the federal tax system subsidizes California’s profligacy.

Here are some worrisome numbers, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

Will high taxes lead the state’s wealthiest residents to flee the Golden State for the comparable tax havens of Florida, Nevada and Texas? Republicans reliably raise that alarm when Democrats advocate for tax increases, like the 2012 and 2016 ballot initiatives that levied a new income tax on very high-earning residents. But now, with the federal tax bill cutting off deductions that benefited well-off Californians, the state’s Democrats suddenly are singing the GOP song about a potential millionaire exodus. …Democratic state lawmakers are worried because California relies so heavily on the income taxes it collects from high earners to fund government services. The state’s wealthiest 1 percent, for instance, pay 48 percent of its income tax, and the departure of just a few families could lead to a noticeable hit to state general fund revenue. …Among high-income brackets, about 38 percent of Californians who earn more than $877,560 – the top 1 percent – would see a tax hike. About 25 percent of Californians earning between $130,820 and $304,630, also would see a tax increase… “The new tax law is kind of like icing on the cake for some who were thinking about moving out of the state,” said Fiona Ma, a Democrat on the tax-collecting Board of Equalization who is running for state treasurer. …Joseph Vranich, who leads an Orange County business that advises people on where to locate their businesses, called the tax law “one more nail in the coffin” that would cause small- and middle-size entrepreneurs to leave California.

Politicians and tax collectors get resentful when the sheep move away so they no longer can be fleeced.

This powerful video from Reason should be widely shared. Thankfully it has a (mostly) happy ending.

One of the reasons the state has awful tax policy is that interest groups have stranglehold on the political system. And that leads to ever-higher levels of spending.

Writing for Forbes, for example, Josh Archambault examines the surge of Medicaid spending in the state.

Over the past ten years, Medicaid spending in California has almost tripled, growing from $37 billion per year to a whopping $103 billion per year—including both state and federal funding. And things have only accelerated since the state expanded Medicaid to a new group of able-bodied adults. …nearly 4 million able-bodied adults are now collecting Medicaid, which was once considered a last-resort safety net for poor children, seniors, and individuals with disabilities. …California initially predicted that its ObamaCare expansion would cost roughly $11.6 billion in the first three fiscal years of the program. The actual cost during that time? An astounding $43.7 billion. …Though California represents only 12 percent of the total U.S. population, it receives more than 30 percent of all Medicaid expansion spending.

And the Orange County Register recently opined about the ever-escalating expenses for a gilded class of state bureaucrats.

California’s annual state payroll grew by 6 percent in 2017, an increase of $1 billion and twice the rate of growth of the previous year. …Employee compensation is one of the largest components of the General Fund budget. In 2015-16, salaries and benefits accounted for about 12 percent of expenditures from the General Fund, a total of over $13 billion. …pay increases drive up pension costs. …The administration estimated that the annual cost to the state for the pay raises would be $2 billion by 2020-21, but the LAO said that didn’t take into account the higher overtime costs that would result from higher base pay, or the extra pension costs from that overtime. …if an economic downturn caused state revenues to decline, taxpayers would still have to pay the high and rising salaries for the full length of the contract.

The last sentence is key. I’ve previously pointed out that California has a very unstable boom-bust fiscal cycle. The state looks like it’s in good shape right now, but it’s going to blow up when the next recession hits.

Let’s close by acknowledging that poor residents also pay a harsh price.

Kerry Jackson’s article in National Review is rather depressing.

California — not Mississippi, New Mexico, or West Virginia — has the highest poverty rate in the United States. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — which accounts for the cost of housing, food, utilities, and clothing, and which includes non-cash government assistance as a form of income — nearly one out of four Californians is poor. …the question arises as to why California has so many poor people… It’s not as if California policymakers have neglected to wage war on poverty. Sacramento and local governments have spent massive amounts in the cause, for decades now. Myriad state and municipal benefit programs overlap with one another; in some cases, individuals with incomes 200 percent above the poverty line receive benefits, according to the California Policy Center. California state and local governments spent nearly $958 billion from 1992 through 2015 on public welfare programs.

That’s probably a partial answer to the question. There’s a lot of poverty in the state because politicians subsidize idleness. In effect, poor people get trapped.

The author agrees.

…welfare reform passed California by, leaving a dependency trap in place. Immigrants are falling into it: Fifty-five percent of immigrant families in the state get some kind of means-tested benefits… Self-interest in the social-services community may be at work here. If California’s poverty rate should ever be substantially reduced by getting the typical welfare client back into the work force, many bureaucrats could lose their jobs. …With 883,000 full-time-equivalent state and local employees in 2014, according to Governing, California has an enormous bureaucracy — a unionized, public-sector work force that exercises tremendous power through voting and lobbying. Many work in social services. …With a permanent majority in the state senate and the assembly, a prolonged dominance in the executive branch, and a weak opposition, California Democrats have long been free to indulge blue-state ideology.

And one consequences of California’s anti-market ideology is that poor people are falling further and further behind.

Daniel Mitchell :Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."