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On Monday, voiceofsandiego.org colleague Liam Dillon offered up some good analysis (with charts, my most beloved visual aid) suggesting that the current economic and market downturn probably accounts for about half of San Diego’s recently-announced $179 million budget deficit. This contrasts with the language coming from Mayor Sanders that seems intended to heap all the deficit blame on the recession.
That San Diego seemed to suffer from a structural deficit even during flush economic times is an important point. I would take it a step further and suggest that the incidence of a recession is not all that valid of an excuse anyway.
First, recessions happen. It seems reasonable that budget planning, whether at the household, business, or city level, should account for the economic ups and downs that life inevitably brings.
But this recession is a particularly poor scapegoat. While its severity shocked most people, myself included, it should have been clear that a period of economic weakness for San Diego was very likely at some point. Back in the good old days of 2006, to cite just one example of how this outcome wasn’t entirely unpredictable, I put up an article showing that housing-related job sectors had accounted for 49 percent of San Diego employment growth in the entire decade to date. The numbers made it quite clear that San Diego’s seemingly robust economy was heavily dependent on an unsustainable housing bubble.
Throughout those pre-recession days I also wrote about the magnitude and riskiness of debt being taken on by San Diego home buyers, the correlation between home prices and retail activity, and the historical precedent for a housing bust being a major cause of recession — to say nothing of the housing bubble itself.
The data that fed into this analysis was for the most part freely available to anyone who cared to analyze it. And it all pointed to the conclusion that weak employment and consumer (which is to say, taxpayer) activity was, as I put it in a refutation of some particularly horrid analysis by the Union-Tribune editorial staff, “a likely if not inevitable result of the excesses of the housing bubble.”
So while it may have been difficult to foresee just how bad this recession would be, having been blindsided by the fact that there was a recession at all isn’t much of an excuse for anything.