What’s real? What’s spin?


We live in a world where it’s become harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s spin. The spinners have become so adept at spinning their case that you’re left wondering, but uncertain.

For example: Is the quality of life going downhill in California? Are people leaving in droves? Are we being overrun with immigrants, legal and illegal? Is California actually hostile to business? Are we terribly overtaxed? Is our education system in the toilet? Is the governor destroying education, the police and the fire departments?

Every year, an organization called the Taxpayers Network (www.taxpayersnetwork.org) puts out a little booklet called 50 State Comparisons, which prints nothing but charts of information on all 50 states. It lets you look at a category and compare one state against another. Now normally I’m very skeptical of any organization that has taxpayer in its title because invariably they think whatever we pay is too much, but this group is different. Most of its statistics come from the Census Bureau, or other federal departments or national associations that are reasonably credible.

Most of the stats come from 2003 or 2004, so they may not represent the last tick on the tape. Being a numbers junky, I find this irresistible.

Belief: California is becoming more crowded and less livable than it used to be.

Reality: Probably true. There are 293 million people living in the United States and almost 36 million (about 12-plus percent) of them live in California. We are clearly No. 1 in population size, while Texas, at 22 million, is No. 2 and New York is No. 3, at 19 million. Coming in No. 4 is Florida at 17 million. Just to give you a sense of the shift: when I came to California 45 years ago, New York State was No. 1 and California was trailing at some distance. In case you were wondering why our presidential elections always seem to be settled in these states, the answer is simple: Because that’s where the people are.

Belief: We’re being overrun with immigrants.

Reality: That’s pretty much not true. In California about one-half of our growth is natural, meaning we’re probably living longer and not dying as quickly, and the other half is roughly international immigration. When you compare us with other states we’re 16th out of 51, and the biggest gainers percentage-wise, to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, are No. 1 Nevada, No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Florida. It’s probably fairly reasonable to assume that an aging population is heading for the warmer areas to live.

Belief: Driving on our highways is getting worse and worse and takes longer and longer.

Reality: This one is probably right on and the answer, I suspect, is relatively simple. When you rank all the states on money spent on highways, we rank almost dead last. We are 50th out of 51 (they also count Washington DC). In case you’re wondering, Georgia was dead last. As far as the federal interstate, we didn’t do much better. We were 49th out of 51 on the conditions of our federal roads even though we were No. 1 when it came to usage.

Belief: We’re overtaxed, with a hostile business climate, and businesses are pulling up stakes and leaving.

Answer: Overtaxed? Well, not really. We’re kind of in the middle, 26th out of the 51 and our average is about the same as the entire U.S. Our property tax burden is also about in the middle of all the states. When they compared the tax burden in 51 major cities, Los Angles came out in the middle, about the same as the national average. Business climate? Well, that’s more of a judgment call than a statistic.

But there were a bunch of things where the generally held beliefs were true: When it comes to either renting or owning property, we were clearly among the most expensive in the nation, actually first and third, respectively. On the flip side of that, we have the most valuable real estate in the nation-maybe I should say the most expensive real estate in the nation-but considerably less affordable. It’s less affordable because our average income was not too much above the national average, so people in California must spend a lot more for housing.

The federal government also hoses us. We don’t get anywhere near the federal dollars we should in California. When the pork is given out, we literally get chicken feed.

Lastly are schools. In public school expenditures we’re were about in the middle of all the states, 25th out of 51. In class size we were among the worst in the nation, 49th out of 51. In high school graduation rates we did poorly, 32nd out of 51.

About the only think we do well in education is pay our teachers well, where we were first in the nation.

If you’re still curious you can order the booklet online with a credit card at www.taxpayersnetwork.org