How Is California Doing? Really?

Typhus is on the rise in California, and this has prompted Victor Davis Hanson to conclude that California is now a third-world country:

If someone predicted half a century ago that a Los Angeles police station or indeed L.A. City Hall would be in danger of periodic, flea-borne infectious typhus outbreaks, he would have been considered unhinged.

This is obviously not one of the things we put on our tourist brochures, but the fact is that typhus is still around in places that have warm climates:

Climate change has made the southwest United States warmer, which in turn has made it more congenial to R. rattus and Xenopsylla cheopis. This has caused an increase in typhus cases in places like California and Texas. Not a good thing. But also not really a sign that California is slipping into the third world.

In any case, this got me curious. I hate to intrude with facts and stuff, but how is California doing? We go through this exercise periodically since California seems to drive conservatives crazy by being both liberal and successful, but I’ve never really gone much beyond a look at California’s economy. What about other measures?

There’s no question that California has a growing divide between our upper classes (Silicon Valley) and lower classes (recent immigrants from Mexico). But this is a sign of vitality on both ends. The real question is how we deal with it and how it affects our performance on things like health and crime. Let’s take a look. It’s not always easy to figure out what the best measures are, or how to get reliable data on things, but I promise that I tried my best to come up with reasonable choices and to publish the charts regardless of what they show. Here we go.

First off, here’s median household income in California compared to the entire country:

We took a hit during the housing bust, but California has generally held its own over the past two decades. In fact, it’s gained a bit on the rest of the country. And keep in mind that this is median income, so it’s not skewed by all the tech billionaires.

How about health? That’s tough. You can’t measure life expectancy for a single state, since we all move around too much, and things like cancer or heart disease don’t tell you much. So I settled on infant mortality. That affects rich and poor alike, and tells you a lot about the health care system available to all. Here it is for 2017:

This seems distinctly first-worldish. How about crime compared to the rest of the country:

This is not so great. California’s violent crime rate had been declining toward national levels for many years, but that reversed during the Great Recession. And property crime has been increasing. Crime in California is hardly at hellhole levels, but it’s definitely above average.

Next up is education. High school graduation rates are highly dependent on poverty levels, so to get a better look at how a state’s schools are doing you need to look at how well they’re doing just with their poorer kids. Here are the high-school graduation rates for low-income students:

California ranks 15th. We should do better, but this is not bad. At the university level, here are the total degrees granted (AA through PhD) as a share of the entire country:

The earliest data I could find was from 1993-94, and since then California’s share of degrees granted has increased steadily. How about roads? Hanson says they’re in “near ruins.” I live in California too and I can tell you that this is Trumpian-level nonsense. Still, I’ll grant that our roads aren’t always in great shape, which is why we recently passed a multibillion dollar gas tax increase to fix them. But how can we put a number to this? The best I can do is the letter grade that the American Society of Civil Engineers hands out to America’s infrastructure every year. This is not a great metric, since ASCE pretty much gives everyone a C, but in the spirit of passing along whatever I find, here it is:

According to ASCE, California is in that great middle-of-the-pack C- range. Now how about taxes? It’s true that California is a high-tax state. By some measures, it’s the highest tax state. However, this is mostly because we have very high taxes on the wealthy, which helps reduce some of that third-worldish income inequality that Hanson doesn’t like. So let’s look instead at how progressive California’s tax system is:

California has the most progressive tax system in the country. Put another way, California does less to make inequality worse than any other state. But how well do we spend that money? Hanson spends a fair amount of time grousing about the California DMV, which is an honest pasttime for any red-blooded American citizen. And it’s true that we had some widely-reported problems with DMV wait times recently, along with a wee mistake in our switch to RealID driver’s licenses. But more generally, how good or bad is California’s DMV, really? I didn’t have much hope of finding anything on that, but the internet is vast and it turns out that someone has conducted a poll of user satisfaction. Here are the top and bottom DMVs:

What else? In terms of public corruption cases, California ranks 34th. Our net in-migration rate is 0.9 per 1,000 population, which is dead average. GDP per capita has gone up 33 percent since 2000, compared to 22 percent for the rest of the country. California’s air has gotten better, its water has gotten cleaner, and its power has gotten greener. We have plenty of problems, but most of them, like homelessness and expensive housing, stem from the fact that California is doing so well.

One of the problems here is that Victor Davis Hanson lives in the Central Valley. It’s one of California’s poorest places, but the real problem is that it’s one of California’s reddest places. It’s solid Republican in a way that makes Orange County look positively enlightened:

Because of this, the Central Valley doesn’t look like the rest of California: it’s poor, and the white people there don’t feel like spending any money to make things better. This means the roads often aren’t kept up and the schools don’t get much money and the housing is wretched. So not only does Hanson have an ideological axe to grind against California, he lives in a place that’s very much not like the rest of the state. It’s what states look like when they’re rural and deep red.


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