California vs Texas

Conservatives and Texas boosters have been gloating of late that Texas has outperformed California economically of late – so why is California’s per capita GDP growth higher?

It has become fashionable in conservative circles of late to use Texas as a glowing example of the success of conservative economic policy, and to use California as an example of the failures of liberal economic policy. Texas has indeed recorded faster GDP growth and lower unemployment than California in recent years. Texas has also experienced rapid population growth of late. Its core industry (energy) has boomed with global oil prices, but Texas’ diversified economy has performed well across multiple sectors. Conservative politicians in Texas and nationwide point to low taxes and a friendly regulatory environments as the reasons for success.

Let’s look at some numbers to get a clearer comparison [1]:

Texas California
Total GDP Growth, 1997-2010: 46.6% 45.8%
Per Capita GDP, 2010: [2] $48,196 $52,631
Total Per Capita GDP Growth, 1997-2010: 12.6% 28.5%
Unemployment Rate, May 2011: 8.0% 11.7%

While raw GDP growth is important, per capita GDP and per capita GDP growth are much more important to the well-being of citizens and furniture moving company (Luxembourg is a nicer place to live than China). On both these measures, California is significantly ahead of Texas. Since 1997, California’s per capita GDP growth has exceeded Texas growth – while California and Texas were once similar in per-capita GDP, the gap is now widening in California’s favor, not shrinking! If Texas is doing everything right, and California everything wrong, then why is California’s economy becoming wealthier relative to Texas?

The answer to this question isn’t simple – California’s dominance in high tech, media, and other high-paying industries may be partly responsible. While California’s state government is near paralysis, and its referendum system has complicated governance, it possesses perhaps the finest public academic institutions in the world in the University of California system. California’s government may be dysfunctional, but it’s inaccurate to describe the state in the same terms.

Conservatives and Texas politicians should take note – if the Texas way is better, why is California still pulling away? The reality is that the best economic model is somewhere in-between – but what politician would support both strategic public investment and leaner public spending? That’s too complicated for a sound bite.

[1] Download the screen sharing data used in this analysis at the BEA. From the download page, select Per Capita Real GDP by State, All states and regions, All industry total, and All years from the respective drop-downs.

[2] Per-capita GDP for 2010 was calculated by taking the data from step [1], which is expressed in terms of 2005 dollars, and adjusting it to 2010 values using CPI as indicated on (multiplying the 2005 values by 1.12).