By Thomas D. Elias
California has taken a beating lately, with (mostly Republican) governors of other states blasting many aspects of life here, not to mention the state’s biggest-name politicians.
They cite everything from weak public schools to the upcoming ban on gasoline-powered cars and high state income taxes as reasons to desert this state.
And yet, no state has recovered faster from the COVID-19 pandemic and its blows to employment, California unemployment has dropped in each of the last 11 months. Firefighters got the upper hand on the previous year’s ration of wildfires quicker than ever, too. And for the 12th straight year, California teams were in the Major League Baseball playoffs. Two teams, to be sure. Not to mention the fact that a California school, USC, seems to have adjusted faster and better than almost anyone else to the new financial scene in college football.
Now come two new realities that make this state look even better, despite having one less member of Congress and one less electoral college vote than it did for the last 20 years.
One is verifiable economic information. While some forecasters see troubled financial times ahead, and possibly a recession, the latest figures seem to belie that pessimism.
This state saw huge gains in leisure and hospitality revenue in 2021, whose figures have only lately been reported, along with growth in industries like health care, social services, technology, construction, and defense spending. This does not even mention agriculture, where California remains America’s No. 1 food-producing state.
Despite headwinds caused by lingering aspects of the pandemic that hurt tourism, California posted America’s second-highest growth in gross domestic state product (GDP – the total of all goods and services produced in the state) in the last quarter of 2021. Its 6.3 percent growth between pre-pandemic 2019 and the first quarter of 2022 was beaten only by Washington State’s 6.9 percent.
By contrast, Florida and Texas, whose governors often joust verbally with California’s Gavin Newsom, all with an eye toward future White House possibilities, checked in with GDP growth of 5.3 percent and 3.9 percent respectively.
For California to better its prime challengers so soundly represented an unexpected achievement, especially coming while it lost a small percentage of its populace to each of those other two states.
California’s natural advantages are one reason it does so well. No place enjoys a better climate, with the ability to pursue a huge variety of activities close to one another all year-’round.
This makes for solid tourism. The latest ranking from the home maintenance website lawnstarter.com places California first among the states in the number of scenic drives, from Highway 1 through Big Sur to State Highway 120 over Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park from the east to Redwood Highway 101 in the state’s northwestern corner and the Monterey Peninsula’s 17-mile drive.
California is also No. 1 in number and scenic quality of national parks, including many sizes and types from Lassen Volcanic to the southern desert’s Joshua Tree.
It’s also first in attractions, including the likes of San Diego County’s Sea World and Legoland, Anaheim’s Disneyland, and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. This list does not even include Lake Tahoe and the Gold Rush country in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
All those places, drives, and phenomena – and others too numerous to list – guarantee large numbers of tourists each year there’s no major pandemic or world war. That, in turn, ensures a healthy travel sector in the economy, with all the jobs and tax revenue hotels, restaurants, airlines, and car rental companies can generate. Yes, California can have recessions and does, but it also boasts lasting features that guarantee swift recovery from economic problems.
Then there’s another big surprise in the lawnstarter.com rankings, supervised by faculty at two major Eastern universities: California now ranks just 45th in wildfire risk, and not because everything has already burned, but because places like Idaho and Texas, and Alabama are not as well prepared to handle fires when they start.
It’s not perfection, but it does put the lie to declinists who have said for many years that California is headed downward in almost all regards. In fact, in most ways the very opposite is true.