California's economy is in the tank. 62% of those surveyed in a recent poll said they're worried about having enough money to pay the mortgage or rent. And about two million people -- or more -- are out of work.
And so into that gloom step the two major candidates for governor, promising hundreds of thousands, even millions, more jobs if elected on November 2.
Our Campaign Check segment on this week's newsmagazine edition of The California Report is all about jobs -- specifically, the job proposals offered by Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown. There's likely not been an election in recent history in which so many Californians were worried about jobs and the economy... thus making it a potent political issue.
Before diving in to the specifics, it's worth noting that the economists I spoke to -- including an economist who reviewed the Whitman plan for the campaign -- all say that voters should temper their expectations that government policies can, in the short run, substantially move the needle on jobs. The consensus seems to be that California's fortunes are much more tied to national and global forces.
"Trying to sort of tease out how many jobs are created by normal economic expansion versus, say, one or two or three policies put in place by a specific politician is nigh on to impossible," says economist Christopher Thornberg, now a principal in the firm Beacon Economics and formerly with the UCLA Anderson Forecast. "The data simply cannot support that degree of specificity."
"The levers (of government) are at the margins" of job creation, says economist Steve Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy.
"You can only do so much with policy," says economist Richard Roll of the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Roll reviewed the Whitman plan for the campaign after its creation.
And speaking of the Republican nominee...
Meg Whitman: Two Million Jobs in Five Years
The former eBay CEO proposes, as you can read online, a robust growth in jobs due, in part, to the substantial regulatory changes and tax cuts she promises to carry out as governor. The policy changes are key, because many would have to be ratified by a Democratically controlled Legislature that might, at best, take issue with her world view.
Economists Thornberg and Levy were, to put it politely, skeptical about that part of the plan.
"I find that to be particularly humorous," said Thornberg about the Whitman plan. "It's completely illogical to sit here and claim your policy changes are going to create two million jobs, when a couple of years ago [under the same regulations as exist now] we were at full employment."
My conversation with Thornberg came before the Whitman campaign called to explain that not all of the two million jobs would be directly related to the candidate's proposed policy changes; their number appears to include a fair number of the jobs that would come back under most models of an economic recovery. But they stand by their estimates as reasonable and not geared toward scoring political points, saying that the candidate herself is insistent on having good data.
Economist Richard Roll, who was referred to me for comment by the Whitman campaign, estimated between 400,000 and 500,000 of the jobs in the Whitman plan would be created as a result of policy changes. Still, he noted those are important gains, and disagreed with any notion that policy changes are insignificant.
The question, then, it seems, is what level of significance should the voters score them? And the Whitman campaign insists that their proposal is far more thorough than their competitor's.
Jerry Brown: 500,000 Jobs in Ten Years
The Democratic candidate's jobs proposal is based not on economic modeling conducted for the campaign, but rather on research conducted elsewhere on the energy sector, and proposals that would ostensibly create jobs.
"My plan is to invest in clean energy, the green tech of the future," said Brown in the September 28 gubernatorial debate. "I don’t just mean solar collectors in the desert... You can put people to work retrofitting the inefficient buildings in California by the hundreds of thousands."
Here, too, there was skepticism from the economists.
"Jerry is doing something that is equally scary to economists," says Thornberg. "He wants to come in and create the industries of the future... Politicians have a terrible track record. For the most part, they don't tend to pick the right firms, the right industries, the right buttons to push."
Levy, responding to both Brown and Whitman's plans, said that "both are overpromising the role and power of governors."
But the Brown campaign said they believe, if anything, they're being too conservative in their promise.
Bottom Line: What's Important, What's Do-able?
"Voters want to believe in easy solutions," said Levy when it comes to the economic promises made in campaigns. He also suggested that the candidates may be failing to focus enough about the other things that a governor can do which send a signal to the business community -- things like fixing the systemic budget chaos in Sacramento and finding an effective fix to California's water supply problems.
All of the economists expect a recovery, albeit a slow one as today's unemployment data reiterates, one that -- absent other action-- will create several hundred thousand jobs over time. Official state predictions draw a similar, though more conservative, estimate of job growth by the end of 2012.
And it may be important to remember that not everything in the California economy is broken. Quite the contrary, says Chris Thornberg.
"From 1994 to 2007," he says, "we grew faster than the U.S. in any particular category you'd like to choose."
And if that didn't get his point across: "To sit here and claim that the state has failed, and but for some Messiah-like figure that's going to come in and change our ways, it's just ridiculous."
Voters will need to keep in mind the caveats that even the campaigns are urging when considering the issue of jobs, and perhaps weigh the world view of the two candidates on the proper roles of government and the free market.
Audio from today's radio version of this report is below.