Prop 23: The Statistical Maze

How long would California’s climate law be frozen under the ballot measure to suspend AB 32? It depends on how you read the state’s labor statistics.

There were moments during Monday’s Forum program on KQED when I thought I’d stepped through the Looking Glass.

The two principal guests were, by design, on opposite sides of the campaign for Proposition 23, the upcoming ballot measure to suspend California’s 2006 greenhouse gas law. So I didn’t expect the “Yes” campaign’s Anita Mangels and Solaria VP David Hochschild to agree on much.  But I never expected a dust-up over California’s historical unemployment rate. I mean, that’s a pretty easy one to settle — a matter of public record, right? Nevertheless, the two duked it out over just that.

Passage of Prop 23 would trigger an automatic suspension of regulations under AB 32 until the “unemployment rate in California” fell to 5.5% or less and stayed there for four consecutive quarters, which is to say twelve months. Several studies have concurred that this condition is relatively rare, occurring roughly once per decade. An analysis by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concluded that:

“…since 1970, the state has had three periods (each about ten quarters long) when the unemployment rate was at or below 5.5 percent for four consecutive
quarters or more.”

And last week, an analysis of Prop 23’s likely impacts from UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment agreed that:

“That level has been reached three times since the state began compiling these statistics in 1976.”

Mangels begs to differ. In an off-air discussion after the program, she reiterated what she said on the air, that “the California EDD figures are very clear that the threshold has been met many times in recent decades, including 10 times in the current decade alone.”

Wait. Ten times? In ten years? Mangels produced a pocket hard drive with a table of data to prove her point, then we plunged into the website of the state Employment Development Department (EDD), where, well buried in a PDF file, are the actual numbers. Just looking at the past decade, the downloadable spreadsheet of “seasonally adjusted” rates shows the last spate of unemployment at or below 5.5% stretching from April of 2005 through September of 2007 (the period during which AB 32 was passed into law).

But how you do the counting makes a big difference. Over that 30-month stretch, one could argue that the 12-month condition in which Prop 23 was satisfied occurred once (since it’s an unbroken string), twice (since 12 goes into 30 not quite three times), or 18 times, once for each month beyond the minimum twelve, moving the 12-month bracket forward each month.

And what you’re counting matters, too. If you look at another EDD data set that hasn’t been adjusted for “seasonality” (the normal month-to-month ups and downs that vary according to the time of year), that period of unemployment at 5.5% or less lasts only three months.

While the language in Prop 23 doesn’t offer any guidance as to which data to use, it also doesn’t appear to let us start and stop counting months at will. Section 3 of the measure requires a freeze on the state’s global warming law:

“…until such time as the unemployment rate in California is 5.5% or less for four consecutive calendar quarters.”

Mangels did concede that “The definition of a calendar quarter might be subject to interpretation” (she initially used the word “murky”). But to most people, the term “calendar” quarter implies three-month periods beginning in January, April, July and October.

This may seem like nit-picking but it’s an important point. It’s what would determine how long AB 32 could be suspended under Prop 23. At this point, it’s pretty unclear how this section would be applied when or if it comes down to it. “I didn’t write it,” said Mangels.

Prop 23: The Statistical Maze 14 September,2010Craig Miller

3 thoughts on “Prop 23: The Statistical Maze”

  1. The relevant points of reference are periods of unemployment that were higher than 5.5%. Then, if you look at quarters immediately following the higher unemployment, you will find only three times in the past 25+ years where the higher unemployment was followed by at least four consecutive quarters of unemployment at or below 5.5%.
    The short of it is that Prop. 23 is an effective REPEAL of the state’s landmark clean energy and climate solutions law. Prop. 23 is bad for the environment and bad for the economy. Please vote NO on 23.

  2. In the panorama of idiotic, short-sighted legislation passed by the Fascist/Marxist/Democrat legislature, AB32 takes the cake. Businesses are already leaving California in droves (the chip manufacturers have all left Silicon Valley) and the “witch doctors” of science still bleat about their religion/hoax of global warming and the moronic majority still believes them. When the economy of California is finally destroyed, as it inevitably will be, who do the “progressive” fools think will bail the state out? The Tooth Fairy? People like Dan Kalb and his ilk shouldn’t be walking around loose; they are extremely dangerous!

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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