A demur to my former Atlantic colleague Ross Douthat

All of us at the magazine wish our colleague/alumnus Ross Douthat well in his NY Times oped-writer role. The better he does, the more his success reflects on all of us, in addition to enhancing public discourse! Part of wishing him well is offering guidance, and in that spirit I have some thoughts about his column this morning contrasting Texas ("red state" / balanced budget / positive example) with California ("blue state" / fiscal disaster / cautionary example).

The column asserts that California's problems stem directly from its liberalism: "California, always liberalism's favorite laboratory... long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area." Yeah, sure, about the regulations and so on. But if you write about California's fiscal problems and don't even mention the role of "Proposition 13"* or similar revenue limits and distortions, you're not trying very hard to make an honest argument.

Pre-Prop 13 (as Benjamin Schwarz points out in his review of the great new Kevin Starr book), California dreamed big and spent big. Post-Prop 13, everything about California's fiscal situation has changed. It's not simply the cap on property taxes; it's also the legislative super-majorities and electoral contortions required to raise money for anything, which are part of a general dysfunction of government structure in the state. Proposition 13, of course, was an anti-tax "Red State" measure of the purest form. You can argue about exactly how crucial a role it plays in the current disastrous situation. But to omit any mention of the topic and pretend that California's problems reflect the outcome of pure liberalism is not trying hard or even respecting the reader.

For contrast, we have Texas: "But flash forward to the current recession, and suddenly Texas looks like a model citizen.... Its unemployment rate and foreclosure rate are both well below the national average. It's one of only six states that didn't run budget deficits in 2009."

Side point: "flash forward" is a prominent member of the list of journalese cliches that need killing. Bonus side point: Texas, like many states, is forbidden by its constitution to run budget deficits. What makes it unusual now is that it's doing so without raising taxes, eg as in this report. But here's the main point: to argue that state unemployment rates during a deep global recession differ mainly because of state tax rates -- and not because of different industrial structures, different banking practices, specific corporate decisions, lots of other factors -- is, again, not trying very hard. An obvious bit of proof is that the Economist, which ran a very similar California-v-Texas exercise a month ago, ended up much more equivocal about the new Texas supremacy. Eg, "To begin with, that lean Texan model has its own problems. It has not invested enough in education, and many experts rightly worry about a 'lost generation' of mostly Hispanic Texans with insufficient skills for the demands of the knowledge economy."

There are points to draw from state experience, especially the agony of California right now. But they're important enough to be worth drawing with some care.
* For the record, Proposition 13, passed by an overwhelming margin at the polls in 1978, put a cap on property-tax rates in California and imposed new restrictions on legislative or electoral efforts to raise taxes of any sort in the future. More here and here and here.