Politics

Paul Krugman: If Only California Could Just Raise Taxes

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I wholeheartedly agree with New York Times econ columnist Paul Krugman here:

Meow!!!

Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state's debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California's political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

But we part paths at Krugman's next sentence:

The seeds of California's current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state's budget in a straitjacket.

This notion, as mentioned here previously, is as taken for granted among the state's political/journalistic class as water is by fish. Yes, Prop. 13 (which capped property-tax increases) created some legitimately challenging process issues, in terms of funds being transferred from the local level to the state level and back again. But the real complaint is that the famous tax revolt made it difficult to, well, hike up taxes. Krugman again:

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature.

Here is where the traditional liberal argument loses me. The California budget "emergency" isn't a tax problem, it's a spending problem. State spending in the past two decades, as this Reason Foundation report [PDF] spells out, has increased 5.37 percent a year (and nearly 7 percent for the past decade), compared to a population-plus-inflation growth rate of 4.38 percent. If the budget growth rate had been limited to the population-inflation growth rate, the state would be sitting on a $15 billion surplus right now. Surely enough to dip into during a real emergency. What's more, despite this alleged tax straightjacket, Californians manage to still pay 21.9 percent in state and local taxes, compared to 14.5 percent for Texas.

Not just for California Republicans anymore!

So to demonstrate that insufficent taxability is the root of California's problems, a persuasive anti-Prop. 13 commentator would need to at least address the fact that state residents still manage to pay a high rate of taxes, and that the government keeps on growing voraciously in both good times and bad. If you're going to tax residents still more (as Krugman desires), don't they deserve to know why the cost of government services keeps going up up up up UP!?

Instead of any of that, Krugman goes on a name-calling binge against minority Republicans. ("Driven mad by lack of power," "the party of Rush Limbaugh," "the party's growing extremism," and so on.)

I am entirely confident in claiming that I know California better than Krugman does (evidenced if by nothing else than by his lazy, college-newspaper usage of the phrase "banana Republic" to describe my native state), and I know intimately from that experience just how many fruits and nuts are sprinkled generously within the state's GOP. And yet surveying a California political and fiscal landscape that has been utterly dominated the past decade by the Democratic Party, and concluding that the problem is the vanishing tribe of Republicans, is at best puzzling. At worst, it's something quite a bit darker than that.