By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
California is in a bragging mode this month because the state’s economy has climbed in global rankings to 5th place behind only the United States as whole, China, Japan and Germany.
It’s a remarkable factoid, certainly, that one American state generated so much economic production — $2.7 trillion last year — that it could rank among global leaders.
It’s even more impressive that California produces so much even though in terms of population, its 40 million residents would be considered a fairly small country, about the size of Iraq.
California moved into 5th place by slipping past Great Britain, which has 63.5 million people, after previously topping France (65 million) and Italy (61 million).
Even more dramatically, California outproduced Russia (142.5 million) and even India, which has 32 times as many people (1.3 billion).
Okay, so it is something about which Californians should feel proud.
It might even fuel those semi-serious efforts to separate California from the rest of the nation and restore the nationhood it briefly had in the 19th century.
However, it’s just as important to keep the new economic rankings in perspective, to wit:
- We’ve been there before. As the state Department of Finance points out, we were 5th in 2002, only to decline as the Great Recession struck a few years later, and we were in 10th place as recently as 2012.
- While the state’s economic output increased by 3 percent in 2017, the economies of five other states grew faster, topped by Washington at 4.4 percent, according to a new report by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Others with larger increases than California were Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
- The BEA report also underscored the narrowness of California’s economic growth of late. The big drivers, the agency reported, were the high-technology and health care sectors.
- Health care growth has been fueled by huge injections of federal Obamacare funds, primarily for expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s medical program for the poor, to about 14 million Californians, more than a third of the state’s population. Obamacare is, however, under assault in Washington and its future is cloudy.
- California’s technology industry is concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area and its explosive growth has come with high levels of transportation congestion and housing shortages and costs that threaten its future.
- The high cost of housing, born of an acute shortfall in new construction, is the primary reason why California, for all of its economic power, has the nation’s highest rate of poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “supplemental” poverty calculation that takes living costs into account.
- The Public Policy Institute of California, expanding on the Census Bureau methodology, says that nearly 40 percent of Californians are living in poverty or near-poverty, with the highest rates in Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state’s population.
- Finally, California is, as Gov. Jerry Brown continues to warn, overdue for an economic downturn. It’s the economic version of Newton’s Law. What goes up must inevitably come down, as we have seen several times in the recent past.