Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: For good comparisons, California should look to Poland

Polish citizens with mortgages in Swiss francs gather in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw last month to demand government help after the franc rose in value, making their monthly payments significantly higher. Last year, the Polish government and the Pacific Council on International Policy held a Polish-American Innovation Week so Poland could learn how to build universities and companies that are more like California’s.
Polish citizens with mortgages in Swiss francs gather in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw last month to demand government help after the franc rose in value, making their monthly payments significantly higher. Last year, the Polish government and the Pacific Council on International Policy held a Polish-American Innovation Week so Poland could learn how to build universities and companies that are more like California’s. The Associated Press

California, I’d like to introduce you to the sister you never knew you had. Her name is Poland.

No joke.

I see by the look on your face, California, that you are a bit shocked. You’re more accustomed to comparing yourself to Texas or New York. And when you’re thinking about foreign countries, you trot out the gross domestic product figures that put you in the top 10 of all economies, up there with India, Italy and Russia.

But these usual points of comparison are too different to be instructive.

Texas, for example, is a much bigger place in area, and much less populous (11 million fewer people) than California. And countries with similarly sized economies are much too big – think Russia’s nine time zones or India’s 1 billion-plus people – to make comparisons all that useful.

If you really want to understand who you are, California, you need to examine the country that most resembles you in size and population: Poland. Like you, Poland is home to 38 million people. And California is not all that much bigger in land area.

That’s not all these two places have in common. For all their differences in history, today Poland and California are both crossroads between major global regions. Poland and California look hopefully West and see the potential for growth through trade with prosperous continents (Western Europe and Asia, respectively).

Both look nervously East toward oil-rich, war-mongering, fading empires that aren’t nearly as democratic as they claim to be (Russia and the United States, respectively).

There has never been a better time than right now to take a hard look at Poland. Few countries have had a better last quarter century. Capitalizing on the Cold War’s end and the European Union’s expansion, Poland has experienced extraordinary economic growth; it was the only major European economy to avoid a recession during the financial crisis. Long-term projections show Poland growing faster than other European countries through at least 2030.

What could California hope to learn from examining Poland?

The most important lesson is how absurdly rich California remains. For all its growth, Poland’s economy, at $520 billion in GDP, is barely one-fourth the size of California’s $2 trillion economy.

Yet, despite being poorer, Poland’s recent investments in infrastructure dwarf California’s; Poland now spends three times more on infrastructure than it did in 2006. That disparity should put the lie to the popular notion in California that the state doesn’t have the money to make bigger investments in its future.

Comparing the two places on education also holds lessons. Polish schoolchildren do better in reading, math and science than California kids. But California’s advantage in the quantity, quality and economic impact of its universities more than compensates for deficits in early grades. In this context, Gov. Jerry Brown’s miserly attempt to limit state investment in the University of California looks – to use a Polish word – glupi (rough translation: a combination of daft, foolish and stupid).

The contrast on jobs is also instructive. California business types often oppose legislative efforts to raise wages, and labor unions seek to restrict how companies hire and fire workers. But looking at Poland, cheap labor – while useful to foreign companies that outsource there – means people have less money to pump into the economy, and the heavy restrictions on employment are a significant drag on growth.

Another big difference involves globalization. California is home to far more global companies than Poland. And California, despite recent declines in immigration, far surpasses Poland in attracting and keeping immigrants.

The good news: Polish eyes already have turned to California to figure out how the country can improve itself. Late last year, the Polish government and the Pacific Council on International Policy held a Polish-American Innovation Week in Los Angeles and the Bay Area that was full of conversation about how to build universities and companies that are more like California’s.

There I met Polish Undersecretary of State Katarzyna Kacperczyk, who speaks seven languages and studied economics at Columbia University. I asked her many questions about Poland. She asked me better questions about California – the kind of questions you get from people who are gaining on you.

I wish Californians thought as much about our European sister as the Poles think about us.

Joe Mathews is innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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