California is a big and diverse place that could be judged by any number of measures. But in this state, political and media elites are obsessed with just one metric:
The budget, and whether it’s balanced.
When the budget is out of balance, we’re in chaos. We’re broken. On those occasions when it appears balanced, as it is now, we’re a comeback and a national model, and we’ve done, in the words of Gov. Brown, “the impossible.”
This is nuts. A poor family that balances its budget at a low figure with low debt is not better off than a wealthy family with its books out of balance and mortgages. It matters how much you spend and how you spend the money. And more important, it matters what you get for your money.
Budget balance has been achieved in California by locking in austerity-level measures of spending (per capita spending is as low as it’s been in more than two generations), and then spewing a lot of nonsense about “discipline” to beat back anyone who dares suggest restoring the cuts of the last decade-plus.
We need a broader range of metrics, to break the grip of the budget obsession and focus people on outcomes. Here are five figures that deserve at least as much, if not more, attention than the budget.
- Per-pupil spending and student performance. California is below the national average, when you control for costs. It would be quite something if we could get ourselves into the top half of states in per pupil spending; we also should aim for the best academic performance of students among other large U.S. states – Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois. Those would be goals far more worth celebrating than a balanced, austerity-level budget.
- College graduates. We have a shortage, and have seen a decline in the percentage of the population with college degrees. We should have a goal of reversing that and leading the country in college completion. That would have a direct effect on the future of our economy. And for the budget obsessed, this is a figure that leads to more budget good news in the future.
- Exports. Texas has passed in exports, and that’s not just because of the price of oil. California’s diverse economies tend to be export-oriented, and, with changes in regulation and investments in infrastructure, we could lead again.
- Public transit riders. One area we’ve seen public investment is in transit, particularly in Los Angeles. But how well are these investments doing? Are they producing more transit riders, with all the benefits to traffic and health and economy that transit can produce?
- The size of our regional economies, and their jobless rates. This would be especially important inland. Some of California’s inland counties have emerged from the recession as some of the poorest places in the country, with unemployment rates in the high teens. Getting those economies growing at higher rates and shrink unemployment there under 10 percent should be a focus of state policy. And the public and media should pay attention to those figures.
I have other ideas for metrics – how fast new businesses can get incorporated and secure permits; our relative tax burden compared to big, diverse states like ours — that should be used to measure California. But let me stop here, and ask for your ideas.