After seven months, California’s one-hundred-plus-member economic recovery task force has finished its recovery recommendation report. What could have been a game-changing opportunity to reduce the state’s high cost of living, increase efficiency in bureaucracies, and reform tax and regulatory policies never got off the ground.
Just 23 pages long, you will be hard-pressed to find substantive economic recommendations, much less any major new ideas, in a report that somehow took seven months to write. The COVID recovery task force was ingenious political theater to show that the state’s major business leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Disney CEO Bob Iger, were professing buy-in to Governor Gavin Newsom’s economic shutdown. This was never about reforming state economic policies that are among the worst in the country. It was about providing broad-based political cover.
With more than one hundred members appointed by Newsom, you knew that nothing important would ever be accomplished. Granted, the unique problems of COVID meant the task force would include representation from several economic sectors, but creating a committee of over one hundred could have been straight out of the CIA’s 1944 “Simple Sabotage Field Manual,” which recommends creating as large of a committee as possible to ensure that nothing happens.
Labor unions garnered the most task force representation, with 14 members, including two from the politically important Service Employees International Union. And even though the pandemic is a public health problem, the task force included only a handful of members from the health care industry, broadly defined.
The report opens with a discussion of the importance of viral testing and the state’s new, expensive purchases of protective equipment and medical supplies. I wonder how task force member Arnold Schwarzenegger felt, as the substantial investments he made in these important supplies several years ago when he was governor—for just such a pandemic—were given away by the state because they were considered to be too expensive to maintain. Oh well.
After reading the report, you get the uneasy feeling that you were indeed snookered. It reads like a “what I did this summer” back-to-school report. There was much listening to others. Hand-wringing about the impact of COVID, but not too much, lest there be any hint that the report is at all critical of state policies. There are roughly 30 references to diversity, equity, and racism in the report, but only one reference to efficiency. There is much admiration for the governor’s leadership, and considerable self-congratulation, including advocating for the use of electronic signatures on government documents and refurbishing used school computers. Tim Cook and Bob Iger were needed for this?
Not surprisingly, you get the feeling that the task force members ultimately hit their breaking points as they tried to navigate what amounted to a ship without a sail. With California COVID cases rising rapidly, it is strange the task force would disband now, when presumably their input is more important than ever. But after seven months of accomplishing little, task force members probably were done in. Iger resigned even earlier, when the state would not come up with a plan for theme park reopenings.
If something important were to have been accomplished, then problems would first have to be identified and prioritized. But this was never going to happen, because Newsom appointed his chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, as one co-chair, who could be the de facto gatekeeper. The other co-chair was Tom Steyer, the former Democratic presidential candidate who spent $250 million to run for president earlier this year, and who failed to receive any delegates.
Steyer previously made a fortune investing in coal, one of the dirtiest of energy sources. Now a born-again activist for climate and progressive causes, Steyer is willing to spend his and other people’s money to create a carbon-free California as soon as possible, even if the most optimistic assessments of its benefits do not come close to offsetting the costs.
Newsom got what he wanted in Steyer as a well-heeled partner who would support all climate initiatives, including Newsom’s executive order banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Because California accounts for less than one percent of global carbon emissions, the state could probably move the climate needle more by paying China to stop using soft coal than by mandating that all new California homes require solar panels, extra insulation, and highly energy-efficient windows and appliances, all of which increase new home construction costs by $30,000 or more.
The O’Leary-Steyer task force report is about as different as it possibly could be from a recovery task force report written in 1992 for then governor Pete Wilson. Chaired by Peter Uberroth, a 17-person committee took just four months to write “California’s Jobs and Future.” This was produced when the California economy had lost 500,000 jobs, about four percent of the state’s employment.
The Uberroth report pulled no punches in identifying the state’s key economic policy shortcomings. In 128 densely written pages, the report described a “government that is no longer working” and a state on “its way to fiscal disaster.” The report describes unaffordable housing. An underperforming school system. A shift to low-wage service-sector jobs. Losing businesses to states and countries with lower costs. Inadequate entrepreneurship. Environmental restrictions that do not pass a sensible cost-benefit assessment. All of this written in 1992.
The report provided plenty of sensible solutions, built around the ideas of redesigning government so that it was no longer in an adversarial position with businesses and taxpayers, an overhaul of the workers’ compensation system to root out widespread fraud, incentivizing school performance, and streamlining regulations and implementing tax incentives for business investment.
For schools, recommendations included stricter cost accountability; a statewide open-enrollment plan, meaning school choice; an extra hour per school day and a two-hundred-day school year; English comprehension requirements for third graders; and expanded career training for 11th and 12th graders. This would have made a significant difference in the effectiveness of California schools, but little was implemented, largely for political reasons.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two reports, written nearly 30 years apart, is the tenor of the conclusions. Steyer stated, “We will come back stronger and better than we have ever been.” In sharp contrast, the Uberroth report warned that the state was risking bankruptcy if their policy recommendations were not implemented. For the most part, the recommendations weren’t adopted, and bankruptcy has been averted only by a series of large tax increases that place California among the highest-taxing states in the country.
Viewed over the last 28 years, the Uberroth report has been chillingly accurate. Sadly, its prescience will continue.