California: The Robert Downey Jr, Not The Lindsay Lohan, Of States

Dear non-Californians upset that California re-elected a Democratic senator, elected a Democratic governor and is otherwise doing things you might not like. Tough shit. OK, that’s my initial reaction to some things I’ve read recently. My more thoughtful reaction is scapegoating one state isn’t the answer to America’s issues.

Last week, the LA Times featured letters from non-Californians upset with the way we do things in my native state. Today, someone named Allysia Finley (no real idea who she is or her background, sorry — googling her isn’t much help) chimes in with a Wall Street Journal opinion piece with a nice linkbaiting headline calling California the “Lindsay Lohan” of states.

Everyone’s tried to help poor Lindsay California, Finley writes — but she won’t listen. And eventually, when Lindsay California crashes and burns, don’t expect “us” to help you out.

How about a little perspective. It’s easy to write the state off as nuts, if you assume that it is the lone nut among the other 48 states, which is what Finley does in her opening (New York gets excluded):

The other 48 states—your cousin New York excluded—are sick of your bratty arrogance. You’re the Lindsay Lohan of states: a prima donna who once showed some talent but is now too wasted to do anything with it.

Flip it around from a population perspective. California, with 37 million people, represents 12% of the entire country. Now it’s no longer that the state is some type of odd outlier going against the other 48. It’s a double-digit percentage. Add in New York, and you’re getting up to 18% of the population.

But hey, that’s still not the majority — plus, not everyone in California voted the same way. Sure — and not everyone in all the other states votes the way Finley probably assumes they should, either.

But you know what? A state like Wyoming, with less than 1% of my state’s population, still gets 2 US Senate seats, just like California. Senate seats which can help contribute to blocking federal legislation that Calfornians might like, might believe in and — who knows — might even be correct on. Blocks that people in California might think are equally nutty.

Note to those from Wyoming — I’m not saying that your senators have done this. I haven’t even looked, and I mean no offense. You’re just the smallest population, so I’m pulling you as an example.

Personally, I wonder if California might be in a better place now, along with the entire United States, if way back in 2000, the strange election system in one state — Florida — hadn’t caused George W. Bush to gain office and oversee the launching of two different wars. Aside from the tragic loss of life, there’s the huge amount of wealth that has flowed out of the country as part of this.

Perhaps some of that wealth might have been used to help the country recover from the financial meltdown that happened under the watch of that same president? Or perhaps someone else might have helped prevent that before it started?

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. What I do know is that the US is founded on states having certain degrees of representation within the federal government and certain degrees of independence within their own borders. It’s a system built on compromise. It’s a system built on all states contributing to a greater whole.

I have no idea if California, over its time as a state in the union, has contributed more or less to the United States as a whole. At some times, it has almost certainly contributed more (consider, if only, the huge amount of legal immigration from other states California has received, people leaving those other states looking for jobs and new opportunities). Maybe at times, it will have contributed less. The same, almost certainly, can be said for any other state in the union.

What the US doesn’t need, right now, is a campaign to somehow scapegoat one particular state as a supposed barrier to progress. It certainly doesn’t need someone suggesting that a state can’t elect its own internal and federal leaders in the way it wants. What it needs is more cooperation. Scapegoating and fearmongering is easy. Compromise and admitting that one view doesn’t fit all is much harder.

As for the crash-and-burn assumption that Finley makes — and her prediction that the state will need a federal bailout — I can’t evaluate that. Her piece tosses a lot of allegations without any real analysis behind it. I’m sure others on both “sides” of the political spectrum will argue both ways. Time will tell.

There’s no doubt California has problems, just as Lindsay Lohan does. But people overcome their problems and go on to success — hence my proposition that California may be more like Robert Downey Jr — heading into recovery and regaining its former success.

Postscript: I’ve now found some figures that are interesting reading:

State budget issues, 2009-2010: From the Sunshine Review, an easy way to see estimated budget shortfalls for each state. California has by far the biggest shortfall for the two fiscal years listed ($20 to $40 billion). But as a percentage of the general fund budget (19%) , it is not out of line with other places like South Carolina (18%) and below places like Alaska (21%) or Arizona (24%). That page also lists stimulus money received by each state on a per capita basis. California is down around 26th with $31 per person. States like Alaska ($379 per person) or Washington ($339 per person) or Idaho ($314 per person) were well above in this type of “bailout” fund.

Federal Taxes Paid vs. Spending Received by State from the Tax Foundation shows federal taxes paid by each state versus amount received from 1981 through 2005. The last time California received more from the federal government than it gave was 1985 ($1.03 for every $1.00 spent, and it was never higher than $1.08). For the last year on the chart, it was $0.78 received for every $1 spent. In contrast, a state like Tennessee received $1.27 for the last year and was always above for every year on the chart. Utah was always up. West Virginia, in the last year, was getting $1.76 back for each $1 spent. This chart has full rankings for 2005 — top was New Mexico ($2.03 per each dollar spent) versus California, which at $0.78 was 43 on the list.

Via the Don’t Mess With Taxes blog, I came across the US Census publication, Fiscal Aid To States for Fiscal Year 2009 (PDF) that was published this past August. Here’s a picture of who gets the most federal money — the darker the color, the more they get. I guess you could call those the Lindsay Lohan states:

As you can see, California is at the low end of money received on a per capita basis.

Here’s another chart rank ordering the states that get the most, plus showing what they get money for:

That’s over $5,000 per person for those in Alaska. Over $4,000 per person for those in Wyoming. California gets about $1,500 per person, well under the US average.

The Christian Science Monitor has its own top ten list of which states get the most money per person from earlier this year. States like Vermont (lots of Medicaid spending) and Alaska (lots of transportation spending) led the list. New York and Massachusetts came next, again with Medicaid or programs to help the poor causing the spending. Louisiana was 6th, with money spent to help the state recover from Katrina (anyone want to complain about the rest of the US paying for that that “bailout?” Because I sure don’t). Tennessee came 7th with high Medicaid spending, followed by Maine, New Mexico and Mississippi.

The Daily Beast did a “hypocritical states” view of the data, looking at where Tea Party support is strong (and often against government spending) with which states get the most spending. California was 33rd on the list of those getting the most federal funds per person.


  1. Jacob Gower says

    I think Lindsay is more of an apt comparison. Pretty much anyone outside of California would agree. Your state is in much bigger financial trouble than most thanks to its genius leaders. But sure, keep thinking you’re Robert Downey Jr. I’m sure Lindsay Lohan thinks she’s cooler than she is too. I like to think of California as the armpit of America.

  2. says

    Jacob, whatever state your from, I trust it has its own issues — and you’d no more appreciate it being written off as an armpit of America because of those issues than Californians would.

    The United States as a whole is in bigger financial trouble thanks to its genius leaders, and certainly California isn’t solely to blame for that. In fact, we have far less voice in US governance than our population counts for.

    My point is the solution isn’t to start scapegoating particular states with cutesy headlines. It’s to actively work on solutions together. Otherwise, you’re going to be finding plenty of people who tell you they think of America as the armpit of the world, and I certainly wouldn’t like that.

  3. Steve G says

    Great article Danny.. But would still never live there again.. We left 10 years ago because enough of the population there is, in my opinion, the armpit of the country.. The country as a whole is starting to circle the drain IMO mostly because we (the collective version) have chosen to create a ruling class of politicians to look over us rather than maintain a citizen politician where these same leaders had other jobs besides trying to get re-elected..

    But that is an entirely different issue… I’m glad you love your home state, but I’m not comfortable living there or seeing them lead the way on a whole host of topics..

  4. says

    Well, Steve, I guess I’m glad the US is big enough that there were other places for you to go. I’m still not happy with the entire armpit reference. I could pick any place in the US and find someone who wants to call it an armpit for their own reasons, too. I guess I’ve far rather have a “to each their own” tolerant attitude rather than a judgmental one. In terms of how California leads on a host of topics, well, the same happens to me. I watch how the US gets dragged into areas hot in other states that I disagree with. In the end, we compromise. That’s what the entire country was founded on, compromise. And if we can’t get that right, we might as well break up the union and let everyone do their own thing. Which, I suppose, some would be happy with.

  5. aceofrpm says

    Don’t knock the state of Texas,say the President is an idiot because he’s from Texas,fly over and spit on Texas and not expect me to pray daily for the “big one”………..I know we need CA to lead nation and I don’t care.I haven’t given a dime to Hollywood in thirty years,never seen your big “product” they produce and I truly hate CA.

    YOU picked a fight with ME.I have yet to respond…in my time.


  6. Steve G says

    To each their own is why we left.. We fit in great with our closest neighbors while living in northern California.. The problem for us was that the further from home we went, the less we fit in.. So rather than try to change the people there, we left.. I happen to live in Indiana right now, but have bought land in Tennessee.. Both of which receive equal to, or less, federal money than California does, per capita..

    I appreciate the way you feel about the way the rest of the country views California.. And I think that my decade there gives me a little permission to disagree.. My biggest issue with California is that it is too big.. With the way the electoral college works currently, it becomes a powerhouse for one party or the other after an election where as many people as live in the entire state of Indiana may disagree with the rest..

    Perhaps that’s why the senate is set up the way it is.. To give us little states a chance to disagree with the larger ones.. I agree that compromise is the way to go, but too many people aren’t willing to let another voice be heard, especially when it disagrees with them..

  7. says

    I didn’t knock Texas. I didn’t spit on Texas. Texas is a great state. I have friends in Texas.

    In fact, I didn’t mention Texas once in this blog post, so I assume you’re just having some knee jerk reaction without bothering to have actually read it.

    I also didn’t say the President George W. Bush was an idiot nor an idiot because he’s from Texas.

    I did question if the US might have been in a better position right now if Bush hadn’t been elected. That’s a fair enough question. Maybe it would have. Maybe it wouldn’t have. But Texas has little to do with it.

    When the Big One hits, a lot of your fellow Americans will be killed. That’s a terrible thing to pray for. It’s a shameful thing to pray for.

  8. says

    In the recent stimulus spending, Tennessee received much more than California per capita. It also seems that Tennessee also only recently dropped below California in per capita spending (that chart of 1981-2005 had it getting more than it paid in every year, $1.27 at the last). I think a change with the TVA may have just recently changed that, however. The Christian Science Monitor also put Tennessee in the top 10 (California didn’t make it) on basis of Medicaid payments. Indiana I didn’t seem coming up in these things I went through, but Tennessee did, a lot.

    But the numbers can be skewed in all types of ways. I’m mainly seeing an article suggesting that California is somehow a big drain that’s sucking the US dry, yet I’ve got figures that show a lots flowing in the other direction. The reality is that I think all states contribute in various ways.

    In terms of power, I feel completely different. I’m from a large state with a huge population which can’t get support for things it wants because of an electoral system that allows the Senate to screw up what a majority might actually want. A state with nowhere near as much population as California — or many other states — can still stall legislation that perhaps a majority of people in the United States as a whole actually want.

    The Senate was envisioned as a way for all states to have an equal say in the union. I suppose it still works, then — just as you might be unhappy we’ve got many votes for the House, the Senate makeup gives me issues. As for the electoral college, that also can make us both unhappy. We have a lot of votes, but the “winner takes all” situation in most states can also negate some of that. I’d rather have the president elected by popular vote, directly.

    I agree. Too many people aren’t willing to hear what the other side says. That was my big takeaway from this last election. Not that the people wanted the entire government to be replaced — because they certainly didn’t replace everyone. Instead, that we’re simply not going to all suddenly agree on one particular party and one particular viewpoint (not that we ever did). So we need to get past this “who’s right, who’s wrong” attitude and start solving problems.

    Which takes me back to what inspired this entire piece. The WSJ opinion piece was all about being negative. Even if you assume that California is completely screwed up, writing a piece like that does nothing to help. It makes Californians defensive. It makes non-Californians decide they’ve got a new scapegoat for the country’s problems that were not solely caused by California.

    Ideally, we want every state to succeed — because that way, you have a way of life in a place that fits you, I have a way of life in a place that fits me and as a whole, we’re a stronger country.

  9. Steve G says

    The only data I had was from looking at the charts you posted.. I live in Elkhart County Indiana, the white hot center of the economic meltdown, and a twice visited county when Pres. Obama was stumping for something.. But we didn’t see but a tiny fraction of the stimulus.. We aren’t an important voting block..

    As for California having more power, the problem is a large percentage of the population there isn’t represented the way they want to be because of the way the electoral votes go entirely for the winner rather than being apportioned based on the way the popular vote comes down.. This disenfranchises a rather large segment of the Californian population and gives the impression to much of the rest of the country that everyone there feels and thinks the same way.. But this is a failing in the system as a whole and not any one’s “fault”.. I agree, a popular vote for president would be ideal, but that would mean a major overhaul of the entire system of government, and we can’t even get them to agree to install term limits..

    We are choosing to move to Tennessee based, in part, on the tax system there.. No income tax, very little property tax, and the budget being nearly entirely funded by sales tax.. This fits well with my views on the way taxes should be raised.. Plus my wife really loves it there and she is moving there whether I want to go or not, and I’m kind of partial to being with her..

    I understand the desire to defend your state.. Being a Hoosier has made me grow up with that.. But when all people see on TV is Hollywood, Compton, and San Francisco, it’s real hard to get them to understand that there are also people and places like Lincoln, Grass Valley and Colfax.

  10. says

    Yes, it is hard for them to understand that. Or to understand that even if they don’t care for Compton or San Francisco, there are Americans there who are still entitled to their own opinions. And really, pick your state — none of them are going to have monocultures that agree on everything.

    California bashing isn’t new. We’re a big, easy target in many ways. I’m just fearful we’re being setup as a scapegoat for America’s larger problems, which as I said, California didn’t solely create.

  11. says

    I am amazed that Danny is getting so much vitriol from this article. As a born and raised Californian, I know that plenty of non-Californians have their issues with our state (some valid, some less so) but I never would have thought that there would be so much seemingly unwarranted hatred. Although, this is still the Internet, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

    One thing that I would want to add to both Danny’s piece as well as Ms. Finley’s piece is that here in California, we also passed Proposition 25 last week, which changes the amount of votes needed to pass a state budget from a 2/3 majority to a simple majority. This will have a major effect on what the budgets will look like in the years to come. If you lean conservative, Prop 25’s passage might scare you in such a blue state (Republican input on the state budget will likely fall significantly or disappear entirely) , however, my point is that it seems odd to criticize California so brutally before the effects of Prop 25 are felt.

    California’s biggest problems are budget-related; with such a major shift in the way that future budgets are conceived, it seems premature to jump to doomsday predictions.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to call California “Lindsay Lohan” because California, despite it’s problems, still contributes an incredible amount to the US economy (#1 contributor in aggregate dollars, #10 per capita). When you think of Lindsay Lohan, you think of a celebutante that gives nothing back to society. Clearly, that’s not the case with California.

    I understand why a conservative like Ms. Finley would be bearish on California’s future but to call us the Lindsay Lohan of states is exactly what Danny calls it in this article: hyperbole for the sake of linkbaiting. Say what you will about Danny’s political opinions but the man knows good SEO and, apparently, so does the Wall Street Journal!

  12. says

    Michael, it’s really much worse if you read some of the blogs elsewhere. Memeorandum has a collection of commentary.

    “California needs a dose of tough love, let them sink. But those who voted for this crap should not move to Colorado. There are already enough of you here trying to turn us into California II.”

    Didn’t know we were asking for a bailout, but OK….

    “I say kick them out of the union, it would be cheaper for us all. I am pretty sure Mexico would take them back.”

    Again, the assumption the state has somehow cost the US something. The WSJ piece didn’t say that. It implied that the state would have to be bailed out — now it’s transformed into reality.

    From what I can tell, one big issue is that the state is borrowing from the federal government to pay unemployment insurance. The AP has put out a short version of this full LA Times article.

    The longer version says:

    “Putting the fund back into balance, at least theoretically, shouldn’t be overly complicated, experts say.

    ‘You can increase your contributions, decrease money going out of the fund as benefits, or do a combination of both,” said Employment Development Department spokeswoman Loree Levy. “But the hole will keep getting bigger the longer that we go without addressing the problem’ ”

    So there’s optimism. Apparently, the state legislature and the governor haven’t been able to agree on the changes, but now with the recent election, that should be possible.

    “These people need to move. Period. I am sick and tired of footing the bill for these freeloaders who want to live it up in the fun and sun of California. I’m out here in Wyoming and businesses out here are begging for workers. The next Congress must cut off this funding. This is an absolute travesty.”

    That’s from someone in a state with the second highest amount of per capita federal spending. And somehow, I suspect that if a bunch of Californians did turn up in Wyoming to take those jobs, that person probably wouldn’t be happy either.

    “Everybody wants their ice cream. Since most of the voters in California pay little or no income tax, they do not care who pays for it. They just know they won’t have to.”

    We send the federal government more than we receive in benefits — that money comes from somewhere, but apparently no one pays taxes in the state. Wish that were me.

    There are comments that are far harsher. There are plenty of comments that just make assumptions even though the original article wasn’t really laying out a serious case. It was a cheap attempt to line California up as a scapegoat — and that’s played well with some.

  13. toto says

    Steve G said: “I agree, a popular vote for president would be ideal, but that would mean a major overhaul of the entire system of government.” How so?

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn’t be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be equal and counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored — 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the “battleground” states has been 67%, while turnout in the “spectator” states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota — 75%, New York — 79%, Washington — 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  14. says

    Danny, thanks for a great piece. As a journalist and a Californian, I had a similar reaction when I read that op-ed yesterday. I have no respect for sensationalist rants against easy, popular targets.

  15. says

    Wow! What a surprise, New York is one of the dark states! Finley will probably be moving to CA soon…she’s projecting her jealousy…I can’t blame her…I would NEVER live in New York…the thought of living in the same city that the Yankees are in makes my stomach turn! I grew up in Boston!

  16. Tony Spencer says

    I started reading this piece with much pessimism as soon as I encountered the “boo hoo we don’t get enough money from big daddy” but I have to say you persuaded me in the end. CA is a fantastic state. I do think it has tilted too far left with regards to taxes and entitlements but you brought it home for me with this statement:

    “Ideally, we want every state to succeed — because that way, you have a way of life in a place that fits you, I have a way of life in a place that fits me and as a whole, we’re a stronger country.”

    I hope CA figures out how to succeed and I hope that success doesn’t involve multiple bailouts from the Fed. My fear though is that companies are leaving in droves because CA has crossed the tolerable threshold of taxation.

  17. says

    I’ve lived in NYC, NJ, MN, CA, and WA and traveled to most states over 20 yrs on technology implementations. Before 911, bigots in red states used to opinion they wished NYC would drop into the ocean. On 911, it nearly did. Now they’ve turned the vitriol on California. Fixating on a state in the cross-hairs rather than working on solutions seems to be the preference.

  18. Steve G says

    A lot of people here are bigots.. But no more than anywhere else.. The reason California has such a bad rap is that we see things like this in the news all the time:

    One city resident is proposing a ballot measure that would ban circumcision in the City, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

    If passed in November 2011, the measure would change San Francisco’s police code “to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the foreskin, testicle or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18.”

    Or this bit from Denair –

    A Stanislaus County school is forcing a student to take an American flag off of his bike.

    I know that there are plenty of not jobs all across this country.. But there seem to be a lot more of them out west.. And that makes it easy to point and say “wow, look at that”.. It’s hard to find middle ground and work on solutions when some people are so far off center that it makes it impossible to work with them..

  19. says

    You’re all off your “rockers.” Quit making it so personal. Petty arguments will not bring our nation together. The beautiful thing about Our Country is that each state has the ability to make choices for what they believe is good for their own people. It’s the great government experiment. It was set up that way for a reason.

    Whether you agree or disagree is a moot point. Californians have the right to enact whatever they want as law. Albeit, they will have to live with it. If it turns in to a disaster, then they will have to deal with it… without looking to the Federal Government for help.

    Accountability in government is something that seems to have been forgotten, and really needs to be rediscovered. At least in my opinion. Also, I agree with Steve G, in that our representatives need to be citizen politicians rather than full-time bureaucrats. THEY ARE SERVING THE COUNTRY, IT’S NOT A “JOB.”

  20. says

    The problem is is the USA is politicaly structured to suport rich agricultural gentelman land owners and hasn’t changed since the revolution when compared to other countries.

    and what would the welfare queen states do if the big states on the west and east coast didnt pay for thier farm subsidy if say they got fed up like Germany and France have over bailing out the PIGS.

    Ask the Irish how they are enjoying the IMF vist thats happening at the moment.