By Robert Price
Editor's note: Steven Colbert referenced this Robert Price column from February 2014 on the July 23, 2014, edition of "The Colbert Report."
Irony abounds here in the poorest region of the country's richest state, a place dominated politically by the voters least likely to be grateful for any federal intervention that might come about as a result of that poverty.
Kern County has been called the Appalachia of the West, but that's actually a mild insult to folks in the Appalachian region of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Bad as it is, Appalachia's poverty rate (16.1 percent) isn't as high as Kern County's (16.8 percent), according to U.S. Census data.
Face it: Outside aid, be it state or federal (it's both), is keeping tens of thousands of Kern County residents from starving. But the prevailing attitude in these parts is that the chief executives in Sacramento and Washington are social-program spendthrifts who've been suckered into indulging ungrateful illegal immigrants and assorted layabouts of various persuasions.
That prevailing world view is probably the single biggest reason venture capitalist Tim Draper's plan to split California into six parts is a bad one. To clarify: His plan, possibly headed for the next California initiative ballot, has no chance of succeeding, but pondering its possibilities is instructive because it lays bare some harsh economic realities.
For starters, Draper's home "state" of Silicon Valley (yes, that's what he suggests calling it) would become the wealthiest state in the U.S. -- and, freed from the obligations of propping up the likes of us here in the Valley, would no doubt grow richer still.
The state of Central California, containing most of the Central Valley, including Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, the Sierra Nevada and the eastern desert, would be the poorest. And I don't mean just among these severed siblings; we'd be the poorest state in the nation, displacing Mississippi, and as such would be in line for perhaps $2,500 in per capita federal spending.
That would be a blessing for those who come in below Kern County's 2011 per capita income of $20,167. It would also be a good thing in terms of representation. Why does North Dakota have as many U.S. Senators -- two -- as California? Because the Constitution says it must. Each of the six pieces of an apportioned California would have its own pair of Dianne Feinsteins -- or, in Central California's case, its own set of Ted Cruzes. Decide for yourself if the benefits of divorcing Barbara Boxer is worth the challenge of marrying someone cast in the image of the Tedster.
Many in this capital of Central California would celebrate the opportunity to undo some of the controversial social legislation that, over the past decade, has come out of Sacramento (which, as the presumed capital of North California, would have the most dignified Capitol building but would otherwise be left a bit deflated by the defections). Gay marriage, special accommodations for transgendered students -- those laws and others would probably go away.
We would almost certainly have the lightest tax burden of any state among the six, and possibly the lightest anywhere in the U.S., but without the support of the world's ninth-largest economy and its diversified muscle, we might have some trouble. Economic theorists who insist that business thrives without undue taxes and regulations would have their opportunity to see that principle proved. Me? I would go into the personal breathing-device business.
In the long run, though, local businesses would have fewer customers of means or longevity. The state Legislative Analyst's Office, which studied Draper's plan, concluded that, now, taxes "are paid disproportionately by Bay Area residents, such that a significant portion ... is used to subsidize funding for schools and other public services in lower-income regions like the Central Valley." Without the Bay Area, we suffer. And since sick, undereducated consumers don't buy many refrigerators, valley businesses would be better off keeping one, unified California -- warts and all.
Email Executive Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @stubblebuzz