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Does It Matter How Big California Debt Is?

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Men are obsessed with size. So it came as no surprise when a new report from a task force of distinguished men declared that California's debt is larger than we think.

The State Budget Task Force, which is co-chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, issued not an exact number but a big (naturally) range for California's debt.

The task force pegged it at somewhere between $167 billion and $335 billion.

For those who need context for those numbers, the Los Angeles Dodgers sold for $2 billion earlier this year, so the upper range would be like buying the Dodgers every single day of a 162-game baseball season.

What is California's debt? The task force report is good at laying out well-known state obligations (such as pensions and health care for retirees) and lesser known obligations (including the billions needed to improve drinking water).

These are big, scary numbers, and that's the point. The task force was formed in part because its founders worried about the depth of fiscal problems in many states, including California.

But, in one sense, the debt number doesn't matter. Other estimates of state debt have been all over the map. (A Stanford study has estimated pension debt at half a trillion dollars.)

There are two significant problems with the debt -- and neither is about the overall number.

The first debt problem is the uncertainty of the debt. No one really knows what the obligations will be.

That's because California government is complicated and multi-layered with many debts scattered among many governments. And it's also because pension debt estimates depend heavily on how the investment markets do; the worse the market performs, the worse pension funds do, and the higher the obligations of taxpayers to make up the difference.

The second debt problem has to do with governance. California's budget and governance systems are so broken that it doesn't much matter what we know about the debt problem -- because we don't have democratic means to do much about it.

Dealing with debt requires giving real authority to those who govern us to make difficult choices. But the California system is all about limiting the authority of those who would govern us. That means no one in California has the juice to get much done on this subject.

So let's hope this new report is the last one that focuses on the size of the debt. Instead, we need more task forces and more work to redesign the governing system -- so that our leaders can tackle the debt, and other problems. 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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