Quality Growth Is the Real Issue for California

The world's sixth-largest economic power took a big advertisement in Business Week magazine last month to proclaim that it had "just passed Britain and Italy on our way to becoming the fourth-largest world economic power by the year 2000."

The boastful nation? No nation at all but the State of California, glorying that--at $550 billion--its total output of good and services is gaining on the gross national product of France and will surpass that of West Germany in a decade or so rank it behind only Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States itself.

California anticipates a long run of economic growth. And the engine powering it, as the articles in today's Business section report, will be Southern California, the populous region that extends from Kern County to the Mexican border. The area, economists predict, will enjoy job growth of 3% a year, twice the expected national average. And the jobs should be of the high-class variety--in finance and services, high tech and health care along with the standbys such as entertainment.

But traditional promise is not the issue of the moment in Southern California. Slow growth is.

Slow growth is the catch-all name given to development-limiting ballot propositions and regulations passed within the last year in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and pending in Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The name reflects a voter outcry against traffic and crowding and pollution.

But slow growth is nonetheless a futile slogan. The forces of change in this region's economy are already in motion, and what is called for to deal with them are hard choices on planning and taxation.

California, favored by a diverse economy and a strategic location on the Pacific Basin, hasn't made that many choices on its way to economic power. In 1978, it passed Proposition 13, but basically all that said was don't raise taxes; economic growth will provide the money and the market mechanism will decide how it should be spent.

But some necessities were shortchanged. The state's once-admired schools have suffered serious decline and transportation--the freeways in Southern California--has slowed. It is ironic that one of the slow-growth movements calls itself Not Yet New York, because Southern California lags behind the New York metropolitan area in important ways.

Education, for example. New York spends $5,219 per pupil and ranks second in the nation behind Alaska (where costs are a special case). New Jersey ranks just behind New York, closely followed by Pennsylvania. California spends $3,296 per pupil and ranks 27th--a statistic the state didn't mention in its Business Week ad asking corporations to relocate here.

Critical Choice

Nor does California get a bigger bang for its educational buck. The state ranks just above the national average in elementary and high school math scores and below average in reading.

What's that got to do with economic growth? Plenty. Modern economies, with high-class jobs, demand a literate, educated work force. With 3% growth in high-class jobs in prospect, Southern California must either educate its multi-ethnic work force or face labor shortages and, worse, a weakened society divided between people well taught and well off and others who are ignorant and poor.

But then, welding one American society from a growing mix of nationalities and races is a challenge to Southern California that makes all the others seem commonplace.

In transportation, many parts of the region's system have become a slow-growth movement unto themselves, with business more frequently delayed or foregone because of congested freeways. Hard choices about staggered hours, impositions on lone drivers, and better bus systems haven't been made.

But let's not overstate the arguments. What is being talked about is not slow growth but growth with quality, and nobody opposes that. However, how to achieve quality at this point in Southern California's history, when choices that were casually deferred in the past need to be made, is another question. And there the blunt truth is that doing nothing is a choice also--and the wrong one.

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