The Number of Day: 245,120

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I’m intrigued by the possible gubernatorial candidacy of Neel Kashkari. He’s the sort of Republican – young, smart, diverse, experienced in government and public finance, pro-choice and same-sex marriage – that California Republicans will get behind if they ever become interested in winning statewide elections again.

Kashkari is being profiled by media across California and the country. The profiles are mostly favorable. Among the most detailed is this Bloomberg News piece.

It’s a good piece, but it has one number in it that is such a howler – and so telling about what’s really wrong with California – that it’s more important than all the other facts in the piece, combined.

That number – 245,120 – appears in the following paragraph:

Neel Kashkari lives in a rented three-bedroom home in Laguna Beach overlooking a cove by the Pacific Ocean. Neighbors in the Orange County town said they’ve seen him walking his two Newfoundland dogs, Winslow and Newsome, but know little else about him. His home, built in 1920, was assessed this year at $245,120, according to property records.

That’s right: a three-bedroom house in Laguna Beach overlooking a Pacific Ocean cove, assessed at just $245,120. Kashkari is renting. But at that unbelievably low price, why doesn’t he just buy?

Because the house is almost certainly worth many times that on the open market. And there’s the scandal of California. No, not Prop 13, which is responsible for the low valuation. (Wanna bet that Kashkari is paying at least three times in rent what the home’s owner is paying on any mortage, if the property isn’t already paid off?). The scandal is the logic of Prop 13 and so much of California governance – that the tax and budget decisions of decades ago should govern us today. Assessed values run decades behind the real values of homes.

That figure, stuck into a story, demonstrates the total pointlessness of the governor’s race. A governor really can’t do very much about reversing an outrage like that. It would require decades of political work, probably a constitutional convention, and the approval of voters to ever change the California property tax system. And in the current political climate, with the current California mindset, no one interested in being elected governor is likely to make the case for that kind of change.

Indeed, the fact that the assessment figure is repeated, without comment or context, shows the depth of the hole that we are in. Do the Bloomberg reporters not know that they’ve recited an outrage, in an off-hand manner?

Anyway, let me wish good luck to Kashkari. He’s going to need it. But let me wish, even harder, for a California where such a figure would be immediately recognizable as ridiculous.

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