The California Cheerleaders Are at it Again


State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and economist Stephen Levy published a piece in the Los Angeles Times that argues that California doesn't really have any fundamental problems. In their piece, Lockyer and Levy don their rose-colored glasses and give us the same tired old excuses, twisted logic, and factual inaccuracies.

I'll begin with the factual inaccuracies:

Lockyer and Levy claim that California is the state with the youngest population. That is just incorrect. The U.S. Census website has a map. California is not even the same color as that used to identify the lowest-aged states.

The authors’ claim that California's high unemployment rate is due to the loss of 600,000 construction jobs is also wrong. Since November 2007, the month before the recession started, California's construction industry has lost 334.7 thousand jobs. This represents less than 25 percent of California's 1.36 million job losses since the recession's inception. The story is still wrong if we choose the starting date for calculating job losses as the date that most supports L&L's argument. California's construction jobs peaked at 948.3 thousand in February 2006. It appears to have bottomed out at 529.2 thousand in September 2010. This is a huge number of job losses, over 400,000, but it is only two-thirds of the 600,000 claimed, and it certainly does not explain all of California's high unemployment or California's million plus non-construction recession job losses.

Lockyer and Levy claim that California's budget crisis stems strictly due to revenue shortfalls, saying,

"Our critics say we are addicted to spending. But the numbers show that isn't true....California's current budget woes have been caused by the devastation visited on our revenue base by the recession, not a failure to curb spending. In the three fiscal years preceding this one, general fund expenditures fell by $16 billion."

This is just disingenuous. Lockyer knows as well as anyone that the general fund comprises less than half of California's spending, and while the general fund expenditures have indeed reflected a decline in taxes, total State spending has increased from $194.3 billion in fiscal year 2007/08 to $216 billion in the 2010/11 year. Furthermore, when the composition of State spending is evaluated, we see that virtually all of the cuts in the general fund have been in local assistance. State operations have been almost completely spared.

Besides, California's budget problems didn't begin with the recession. Do Lockyer and Levy think that our memories are so short that we forgot that Gray Davis was thrown from office because of budget problems, and that Arnold came in office pledging to fix California's persistent budget deficits?

We are also again treated to Lockyer's mantra that California has a constitutional requirement that it not default on bonds, adding,

"During the current fiscal year, general fund revenues are expected to total $89.4 billion. Education spending under Proposition 98 will total $36 billion. That leaves $53.4 billion available to pay debt service on bonds — more than eight times the $6.6 billion the state will need."

That's wonderful, but constitutional requirements and revenues don't pay debt. Cash pays debt, and California does run out of cash. When California runs out of cash it issues vouchers. Already some banks have refused to accept California vouchers. What will the State do if all banks refuse to honor vouchers?

I'm sure the Treasury sets aside funds for debt repayment before they issue vouchers. Whatever they set aside will probably not be enough if California finds itself in a situation where vouchers are not accepted. Do we think the unions will let their people work if they are not being paid? Would the workers want to work if they are not being paid? Would contractors work? Will there be anybody around to write a check, even if the reserves are there?

The fact is that if vouchers are not accepted, California will be plunged into a very serious crisis, a crisis in which case California's constitutional requirement to pay would have no more meaning than its constitutional requirement that it have a balanced budget by June.

Lockyer and Levy ludicrously claim that California's business environment is good. But disinterested groups that issue reports that consistently rank California as among the least attractive states are wrong, groups like the Tax Foundation and Chief Executive Magazine. Lockyer and Levy cite Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) research that business relocations cause smaller percentage job losses in California, but the PPIC can't measure jobs that aren't created when businesses that could reasonably be expected to expand in or move to California don't.

Lockyer and Levy also repeat Brett Arends's claim that California's share of the World's venture capital has increased to 50 percent, but they neglect to note that the amount is declining, a lot, as Tim Cavanaugh showed here. California is getting a larger share of a rapidly declining pie. The net result is a huge decrease in California's venture capital.

Finally, I'll conclude with my favorite Lockyer and Levy quote:

"California no doubt faces serious challenges. But our obstacles are not insurmountable."

That's exactly right, but the problems are not insurmountable until you confront California's real, fundamental, problems.

Bill Watkins is a professor at California Lutheran University and runs the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting, which can be found at

Photo by Kevin Cole