Is California a basket case?

Not at all, these commentators say

California is in the tank, right? Decades of profligate spending have ruined the economy. Businesses are fleeing in droves. The schools are falling apart, and the Legislature is paralyzed in the face of a $25 billion deficit.

The state is a basket case, the Greece of America.

Some days it may appear that way, but lately some commentators are taking another, less pessimistic, look.

Let’s start with the schools: In a recent essay on the online California Progress Report, the venerable Peter Schrag calls attention to John Mockler, a former executive director of the state Board of Education. Mockler has crunched the numbers, and what he’s found may surprise you.

Although California now has the worst teacher-student ratio in the country and ever-increasing numbers of English learners, student test scores improved dramatically between 1999 and 2009; the number of kids taking algebra and advanced math and science courses increased significantly; and black and Latino students narrowed the proficiency gap with their non-Hispanic white classmates.

There are still problems, beginning with high dropout rates among minority students. But the “California Schools Suck Industry” and its “statistical pornography” have got it mostly wrong, Mockler argues. (Go to to see his data.)

Or consider the budget deficit. Yes, $25 billion is a lot of money, but as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters pointed out recently, “it’s scarcely 1 percent of our [nearly $2 trillion] economic output, so closing the gap with either new taxes or spending cuts would have virtually no impact on the world’s eighth-largest economy.” The problem is political and ideological, not economic, he argues.

Finally, let’s turn to a recent commentary by Brett Arends, a respected analyst for Dow Jones’ MarketWatch. Titled “The truth about California,” the piece asserts confidently that not only is California in much better shape than many realize, it’s actually subsidizing the rest of America.

The state already has one of the highest living standards in the country, and over the past 10 years (1999-2009) it’s grown much faster, per person, than the national average—by 15 percent, compared to 8.9 percent. That’s three times faster than low-tax Texas.

In the late 1990s, “California attracted an incredible 42 cents of every venture capital dollar invested in America,” Arends writes. “[I]n 2010 California just got a miserable, er, 50 cents of every venture capital dollar invested in America. … Wow. What a failed state. What a basket case.”

What about taxes? They’re astronomically high in California, right? Well, no. According to the Tax Foundation, state and local taxes averaged 9.7 percent nationally in 2008. The figure in “crazy, liberal, communistical … California? Er, 10.5 percent,” Arends writes. “That’s right. The burden was all of 0.8 percentage points higher than the average.”

Finally, he notes, Californians pay far more in federal taxes than they get back. Between 1980 and 2005, they “bailed out the rest of American to the tune of about $650 billion in today’s dollars.

“California isn’t our Greece, it’s our Germany,” he concludes. “It isn’t Little Orphan Annie. It’s Daddy Warbucks.”