Monday, June 01, 2009

California is bankrupt

If you make a decent wage (I don't, but many do) then the state income tax is about 10% as well. That rate is also among the highest in the nation.

What we have here is not just cognitive dissonance but pathological disassociation from reality: California is a very high-tax state, with among the highest rates in the nation in virtually every category of taxation. Voters rejected the bogus tax-and-borrow-more propositions for two reasons:

1. The propositions were deceptively written and presented in a ham-handed attempt to mask the fact they weren't tax increases. Voters rejected this incredibly crass attempt to deceive them. Lesson for state politicos: if you want a tax increase, ask for it in plain English.

2. Residents already pay high taxes, and the state has already garnered $40 billion per year in additional funding over this decade. We seem to have received little in the way of improvements for the extra $40 billion a year in state spending. Even in a state with 36 million residents, that is a stupendous sum. Therefore voters desire to send more of their money to a government which has shown little fiscal restraint and precious little oversight of current spending was low.

To understand California's impending bankruptcy, we have to consider these fundamental issues:

1. State, county and city employees are paid (wages and benefits) between 50% and 200% more than equivalent private-sector employees.

2. The California economy's real-world foundations--agriculture, entertainment, technology and tourism--are all in decline or pressured by state policies.

3. Overlapping state regulatory agencies are effectively strangling real-world businesses in favor of high-on-the-food-chain enterprises like attorneys and Web 2.0 firms--businesses which create few jobs and which ultimately depend on highly profitable real-world businesses for their own incomes.

4. The Prop 13 limits on raising property taxes has saved millions from losing their homes due to escalating property taxes even as it has unintentionally created vast injustices.

Let's tackle the last item first. Pundits both in-state and out-of-state are quick to identify not bloated public-employee pay and benefits but low property taxes as the culprit. My wife and I bought our residential property 17 years ago at a cost far below current values and we still pay $10,000 a year. Is that "too low"? If that's too low, then what do these pundits think average wage earners can afford? $20,000 a year? Do they really think $1,660 per month is "reasonable" for property taxes? How much do they pay?

The injustice in the system is obvious but difficult to rectify. To understand why, let's consider the other taxes: income and sales. A rough form of justice is implicit in both: everyone who buys something regardless of their income pays sales tax. Those who buy more are presumably wealthier, hence they pay more sales taxes than those of limited incomes. (Food is exempt from sales tax in California.)

Income tax is highly progressive in California, with moderate-income folks like myself paying modest sums (I paid $513 on adjusted gross income of $30,000) while high-income residents pay a stiff 9-10%. This too carries a readily comprehensible justice: higher income residents can more easily afford higher tax rates as they have more income above subsistance.

But a tax which is $1,200 for for one house and $12,000 for the identical house next door is explicitly unjust. The problem is that the elderly resident of the house paying $1,200 a year might be scraping by on a Social Security check, while the house across the street paying $1,300 a year in property taxes might be long-owned by wealthy pensioners pulling in $10,000 a month.

Meanwhile, the young family who foolishly bought in at the top of the housing bubble next door might be paying $15,000 a year in property taxes even as 65% of their income goes to pay their mortgage and property taxes. (I have friends who pay even more than this stupendous sum for their "fixer-upper" purchased in 2006.)

The only fair way to rectify this structural injustice is to consider the total income (not just taxable income, but all income) and total assets of the residents. Simply raising taxes on low-tax properties will only create new injustices as low-income retirees are forced from their homes by suddenly steep tax increases.

On the other hand, why should residents pulling down $10,000 a month pay 10% of the tax their neighbors pay? That too is unjust.

It seems obvious that some straight-forward adjusting based on income and assets could rectify the worst of the injustices of the current system. Yes, this would require a lot of paper-processing, but isn't justice worth some paper-pushing?

How about something along these lines: if you pay property tax of less than $3,600 a year and your gross income from all sources (including tax-free bonds) exceeds $100,000 a year then your tax jumps to $3,600 a year or 90% of the county's average property tax, whichever is lower.

Look, if you're enjoying an income of $100K or more, I think you can manage $300/month instead of $150/month in property taxes.

If you pay more than $10,000 per year in property tax, the property is worth less than $1 million and your household income from all sources is less than $100,000, then your tax drops to $10,000 per year.

Whatever parameters are set, a fairly limited set of adjustments like the above would rectify the worst injustices of the current system in short order. Yes, some would still pay much less than neighbors while others would pay far more, but some modest attempt at justice would still be worth the effort.

I know all you who work for government and quasi-government agencies like water boards, transit systems and school boards will find this disagreeable, but the vast majority of public employees are paid twice as much (or more) as their private-sector counterparts when benefits are factored in. I know for a fact that clerks in school district offices are paid well over $40,000 a year, with benefits exceeding $20,000 per year, while private-sector clerks with the same skillsets are worth perhaps $22-24,000 in the real world, with minimal pension benefits.

Including rich benefits and pensions, many public-sector employees in California are paid twice or more the market-rate value of their labor.

Since labor costs make up 3/4 of all government budgets, it is obvious the only long-term solution to deficits in states already groaning beneath high taxes is to bring public employee wages and benefits in line with real-world market valuations for that labor.

To date, California's public employee unions are fiercely resisting all but the most feeble reductions in their members' pay and benefits. Given the outsized share of labor costs in all government, this recalcitrance guarantees the state will become insolvent/go bankrupt and literally be unable to meet its payroll.

It is instructive to recall that in 1932, the city of San Francisco reduced its municipal salaries by 25% and limited city jobs to one per household. Note to public-employee unions: that is a real-world start you might do well to accept before even harsher terms are offered.

Overlapping dysfunctional regulations are driving real-world businesses under. Like a prissy spoiled princess, California has turned up its nose at enterprises like making steel (smelly), surfboards (let China worry about fumes), agriculture (uses too much water which I need to keep my lawn green and pool filled), aerospace (there's never enough taxes on the military-industrial complex) and physical technology (that wafer plant is too toxic for our taste, no matter what controls you install).

Oh, and every permit application will cost you big-time. The actual permit--well, what makes you think we'll actually lower ourselves to grant you one? If we do, the fee will hit you like a sucker punch to the gut. Then we'll add inspection fees, business licenses and a swarm of other junk fees. But really, we're "pro-business" here--we love businesses dumb enough to stay here. Sadly, the ranks of sucker corporations seem to be thinning.

As a result, California now depends on top-of-the-food-chain enterprises like attorneys (sue it if has insurance, don't bother if it doesn't), tourism and the horrifically overhyped fraud known as Web 2.0 (a handful of young coders constructing a web business suposedly worth billions but the only source of revenues from now until the sun explodes is advertising). In case nobody noticed, adverts only work on people with jobs and income.

Tinseltown is tanking. The Web is dismantling the film and music industries faster than you can say "Ten bucks to see a freakin' movie?" Unemployment in the film and music industries is rampant and growing. The costs of doing business in california are simply too high to make money.

The illusion of corporate headquartering in California is like a Hollywood set facade. Behind the corporate facade, global giants like Intel are basing most of their employees overseas or in lower-tax states like New Mexico and Oregon. Yes, Silicon Valley is still the place to come for venture capital; and yes, entrepreneurs are still starting companies. But once they need to grow, they have to exit the state to prosper.

The state organs of propaganda will deny all this, but then why are tax receipts down over 40% year over year? Is that because so many new businesses are prospering and hiring people?

The pathetic truth is California got by on a mere $100 billion a year in spending not many years ago and now there is great gnashing of teeth and weeping that the state is ruined if spending doesn't stay at $143 billion a year. If this were true, then how did we get by on $95 billion a mere decade ago? The answer to cutting $42 billion is simple: all agencies must revert to their 2001 budgets.

The housing bubble provided California with one last glorious shot of fantasy. No need to tax and spend prudently--housing will keep going up and the property tax increases are stupendous. No need to make anything tangible any longer--just fill office towers with brokers, attorneys and mortgage sales staff. Property taxes and capital gains from housing will keep rising forever.

Yeah, right. Welcome to reality, California. Either fix your structural problems or prepare your bankruptcy filing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! The government employees and their unions refuse to see reality and our state is doomed.

The Democrats running Sacramento are also dumb and blind. Just yesterday I heard of a bill that would increase the cost to companies in the name of "clean air" and blacks and Hispanics.

They're trying to hit companies with new regulations using the "global warming" chainsaw--regs that would supposedly clean the air but would only result in higher costs for the most regulated place on the earth (ie, California).

In other words, our government in Sacramento is chasing away business in the face of an historic bankruptcy.

This is all ridiculous and it will only get much worse.

BTW, where is all of the "Hope and Change"?

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too much California funding is earmarked through unfunded mandates passed by voter initiative -- for example, the rampant jailing and institutionalizing of non-violent offenders, aided and abetted by the prison officer's union owning the airwaves at election time. Remove all these implicit unfunded mandates, and you've solved a great deal of the problem, by giving the state the flexibility to fund services that are actually needed, and/or tax cuts that are actually needed, rather than what gets bought through the corrupted initiative process. (The explicit funded mandates are a non-issue; they're mostly in education and they're mostly stuff that other states have done anyway legislatively).

Proposition 13 has its own set of problems, but of course it should always be remembered that this is first and foremost an impact on local government and schools, which must then pray they get money from the state to fill the gap, which in reality they usually don't do very well. Besides the gross inequality between long-term owners of a particular property and newcomers mentioned in the blog post, it has loopholes that give a massive break to personal property. Corporate "personhood" effectively means business property taxes reset only when the property itself changes hands, not the corporation. M&A? No reset, it's still grandfathered in. Prop 13 should never have even applied to business, let alone in this way.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great post, I wish you would update more often.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong wrong wrong. Prop 13 s/b eliminated, and taxes based on assessed values, like other states. If you retire and can't afford the taxes, too bad - downsize. At least your millionaire neighbor won't be getting a break you don't get.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I asked someone in NJ how property taxes were done, he said a couple of things taken into account when determining taxes - they seemed reasonable to me:

1. Evaluate the value of all houses (what could they be sold for today). Take the median price.

2. With this median price, set a yearly tax amount. Then if houses are below this median price, they get a discount, if above this median house price have an increase.

3. The other assumption is that there is a TOTAL amount that the city/county/state needs for budget and the property taxes meet this need. I think the budget only increased a small % per year.

This seemed a fair way of getting what the city/county/state needed with everyone feeling equal pain depending on how expensive their house is.

Maybe could add income evaluation - discounts for seniors living in a wealthy home with no income.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Move to russia you commie pinko.

10:01 PM  

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