Is California a Third World Country?


Dr. Hanson’s article, “America’s First Third-World State” is over at National Review hitting the rounds. Though Hanson is mainly a military historian (quite a good one, I enjoyed Ripples of BattleA War Like No Other), he is popularly known for writing on the failures of governance in California. His piece is popular not only because of the prose’s quality but because it fits a common theme in conservative political writing. California, like the DMV, is a useful bête noire for conservatives whether they live here or not.

What is a “Third World” country?

VDH lays out his case pretty simply, California faces an immense amount of crime, corruption, poverty, homelessness and decaying infrastructure. To him, this fits a third world state, which he defines thus;

Third World symptomologies are predictably corrupt government, unequal or nonexistent applicability of the law, two rather than three classes, and the return of medieval diseases. Third World nations suffer from high taxes and poor social services, premodern infrastructure and utilities, poor transportation, tribalism, gangs, and lack of security.

Another chief characteristic of a Third World society is the official denial of all of the above, and a vindictive, almost hysterical state response to anyone who points out those obvious tragedies. Another is massive out-migration. Residents prefer almost any country other than their own. Think Somalia, Venezuela, Cuba, Libya, or Guatemala.

VDH doesn’t lay out a case for which country qualifies as a comparative third world state, but given how often he writes about the place, one assumes Mexico counts. Given its nearness, how many Mexican citizens live in California (as VDH is so eager to note) and how it isn’t the worst country in the Americas, I think it could act as a useful counterpart.

Does California match up?

The answer is obviously, no. Let’s start.

  • Poverty:
    VDH lays out California’s poverty rate, welfare usage rate, and homelessness. However, he leaves out a few key facts for context. California does have one of the highest poverty rates in the Union at 13.2%. Interestingly enough Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas all have higher poverty rates. Mexico, our stand-in “third world nation,” has a poverty rate of 26%.
  • Homelessness:
    California does have a fairly high homeless population. Part of this is due to California’s immense size of nearly 40 million. Another is largely due to the fact that California is an attractive place to be homeless due to its 250+ days of sunshine out of the year. Also, California is disproportionately urban, which throws off the scale due to how homelessness clusters in cities. Despite these factors, California does not have the highest homelessness rate. DC, New York, Hawaii, and Oregon all have higher homelessness rates. Counting homelessness is more difficult in Latin America, but if we use the number of people who live under the international poverty line (800k out of a nation of 129m), it quickly dwarfs VDH’s homelessness numbers (135k out of 39m).
  • Welfare Expenditure:
    While VDH provides no numbers, it is somewhat axiomatic that California has a very high welfare expenditure rate. However, when compared to the rest of the country, it is hardly the stuff of the “third world.” Regionally the Far West (CA, OR, WA, NV) is one of the biggest spending regions but is matched by New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT) and outspent by the Mideast (DE, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA). Alaska is functionally a region unto itself with more than double the national public expenditure per capita rate. Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, New York, DC, Vermont, and Massachusetts all have a higher per capita expenditure rate. You wouldn’t know it from VDH’s piece by there are a million fewer people on assistance in California than there was 20 years ago. Even with the $103b spent annually on welfare in California, it is still less than half of Mexico’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP.
  • Inequality:
    Though mentioned in passing, high-income inequality is a somewhat reliable measure of poverty. California’s Gini coefficient score was .471 in 2017. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York were all higher. Mexico’s was .494 before taxes and transfers and .476 afterward.
  • Disease:
    VDH does not provide a lot of detail in this section but rather lists various outbreaks of diseases such as typhus and hepatitis A, not to mention diabetes. One would imagine California is the only place where typhus breaks out in the United States after reading VDH’s piece however it is known elsewhere with the same irregularity. As for diabetes, California’s Type 2 diabetes rate is actually quite low, with the worst states clustering in the South. California’s diabetes rate is 10.5% whereas Mexico’s is 24% for men and 21% for women.
  • Infrastructure:
    VDH gets into this but only provides a list of grievances that would be well known to any native born Californian. When compared to the rest of the country, California ranks slightly above the national average, according to the 2019 report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers. California has its problems, from traffic, aging roads and bridges and incomplete water retention infrastructure. However, doesn’t begin to approach a “third world” condition. While the United States’ ranks 14th on the World Bank’s infrastructure index, Mexico ranks 51st.
  • Outmigration:
    VDH paints a grim picture where the middle class leaves California, replaced only by the poor and the illegal immigrants. This obscures some relevant facts. The illegal immigrant population has been declining and makes up less than 6% of the total population in California. In reality, the outmigration is often offset by a signification amount of in-migration (a trait not common to failing states, unless I missed some major migration flow into South Sudan). Ironically the poorer a Californian is, the more likely they are to move to another state.
  • Corruption & Taxation:
    It is also axiomatic that California has extremely high taxation and is immensely corrupt. The first is certainly true, however, VDH is incorrect in saying California has the highest tax burden. New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and New York all have higher tax burdens compared to California. California’s tax burden to GDP ratio (5.3%*) is dwarfed by Mexico’s 16.2%.As far as corruption goes, California does not do poorly for itself, ranking in the middle of the pack. By contrast, Mexico ranks 138th out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.*This estimate assumes a high revenue collection rate for 2019-2020 and assumes California’s 2.7t GDP remains stable.
  • Crime:
    For the sake of time, I am going to use homicide as a proxy since states’ violent and property crimes do not always match up. But as homicide is the worst violation of the social contract and an easy indicator of social failure, it seems fair to me. California’s homicide rate as of 2017 was 4.6, below average for the United States. By contrast, Mexico’s is 21.5. VDH blithely insists California’s crime rate is increasing when in reality it is in the midst of a historic decline.

Looking over the facts, it is obvious California has governance issues. There are much-needed reforms for the budget, taxes, infrastructure, housing, and the labor force. The business environment could become friendlier, regulations could be streamlined, education outcomes improved, and housing costs reduced. The “California model” is not one for progressives to brag about. Given California’s unique natural resources, massive ports, the tech industry, and terrific weather, the mediocre social outcomes are inexcusable. But poor progressive governance does not a Third World make.

By contrasting our experience to other states, these problems are not unique to California. Furthermore, it’s clear VDH has exaggerated California’s issues for the purpose of driving home how allegedly miserable it is here in the Golden Republic. So why label California a “Third World” country? There are multiple states in the Union with worse corruption, poverty, disease, dysfunction, and inequality. Magically these states don’t figure very highly in popular conservative imagination as a part of the “Third World.”

Who’s to blame? “Third Worlders”

VDH spends one paragraph listing potential causes for the problems listed in his jeremiad. While many of these ring true (zoning, overregulation, taxes, educational standards), at the top of his list (as usual) is the presence of immigrants, both illegal and otherwise. Beyond the issue that this is factually and deeply untrue on a multitude of levels, this is really the core of the problem of VDH’s writing on California. On the one hand, as a fellow fourth generation Californian (his forbearers being Scandinavian farmers, mine being Mexican laborers), he has the gift of clarity. He lives in Central California, many of his neighbors are Mexican and some of the Hanson in-laws are Mexican. And yet nearly any mention of Hispanics, migrants or Mexicans specifically are nearly always in the negative. One wonders after reading Hanson if there are any of each category who are not criminal, overweight, diabetic layabouts.

This is not to say there are never times in any community for hard truth-telling. Before his spectacular unveiling as a truly horrendous monster, Bill Cosby enjoyed a career of traveling around working-class black neighborhoods talking about social decay and communal responsibility. While this was naturally controversial, in person his message was often positively received. Why? Because Cosby (and others who do the same) don’t engage in hyperbolic exaggerations. Additionally, successful truth-tellers often are addressing their own community. VDH makes no such attempt to associate himself with his target. Lastly, Cosby and others often spoke to their audience, whereas VDH and other oracles of Hispanic failure speak about them to others a spectacle.

By contrast, usually when anyone aims their pen at similar dysfunction among working-class whites (paging Kevin D. Williamson*), the reaction from many on the right, including VDH, often approaches a self-pitying rage. It is frustrating as someone whose father is Mexican-American and mother is Southern/Midwestern white, that often my fellow conservatives can’t approach Hispanic (or black) poverty with the same nuance and new-found understanding that white poverty often receives. One gets lectures, the other gets to lecture. California’s problems get it labeled a Third World country, other states (either Deep Red or very white) get to comfortably remain in the First World.

Lastly, someone telling hard truths doesn’t shift away from positive news. Reading VDH’s dispatches from Mexifornia, one would never know that Hispanic poverty is declining, middle-class growth is increasing, high school drop rates are plummeting and college attendance is skyrocketing. Never mind the rapid English acquisition rates or intermarriage rate. No time for that in VDH’s writing. No nuance here. Just more stories about how shiftless, fat diabetics from Latin America ruined Reagan’s California and turned it into some Third World hell-hole.

*The bitter irony here is that Kevin D. Williamson is self-described “poor white trash” who grew up in working class west Texas and lived with the very social dysfunction he describes. What often gets missed in the debates over his various pieces on white poverty is that he comes from said community, often is speaking to them, and is willing to discuss positives and solutions. I have rarely, if ever, seen that from other writers.

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