As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Get The Circus Out Of Town

The latest Big Five meeting is underway, and we could see a yay deal as soon as tonight. Digby, who I'm lucky enough to call a colleague over at Hullabaloo, has a great post about the budget debacle and the collective lack of perspective in politics. She references the 2003 special election freak show and how the media became seduced by marketing and reality-show gamesmanship into cheering on the "Who Wants To Be Governor Of California" spectacle (side note - I actually almost worked on the actual "Who Wants To Be Governor Of California" TV show produced at the time by Game Show Network). And while turning the recall into a game, everyone forgot about the insanity of the associated issue:

The "issue" that supposedly precipitated this little tantrum was the required restoration to earlier higher rates for car registration, brought about by a weakening of the economy. The media went wild, even friends of mine who know absolutely nothing about politics pretended to be enraged that they would be forced to pay $30.00 more a year and they all went out and voted to recall the Governor and replace him with The Terminator.

That recall was a political sideshow of epic proportions, featuring porn stars, Gary Coleman and even Arianna. It was great fun. Standing in line to vote that day -- the longest line I'd ever experienced at the ballot box --- was like being at an American Idol party.

But check it out. In an otherwise terrible George Skelton column, he does make one interesting observation:

Schwarzenegger had campaigned full throttle against Gov. Gray Davis' "outrageous" raising of the vehicle license fee. His favorite stunt was using a wrecking ball to smash an old jalopy that symbolized the tax.

Davis really had only bumped the fee back to its historic level: to 2% of a vehicle's value, rather than a recently enacted 0.65%.

Schwarzenegger's canceling of the fee hike actually amounted to the single biggest spending increase of his reign. That's because all the revenue from the vehicle license fee had gone to local governments, and Schwarzenegger generously agreed to make up their losses by shipping them money from the state general fund.

The annual drain on the state treasury was $6.3 billion until February. Then the governor and Legislature raised the fee to 1.15% of vehicle value, saving the state $1.7 billion. But it will revert to its lower level in two years.

Cutting the car tax plunged the state deeper into debt just as Schwarzenegger was taking the wheel. To cover it -- at least temporarily -- the new governor went on a borrowing binge. It didn't take much to persuade the Legislature and voters to authorize $15 billion in "economic recovery bonds."

Passing those bonds and a companion spending "reform," the governor promised, would mean "no more deficit financing." They'd live within their means. Sacramento would "tear up the credit card and throw it away."

The only thing thrown away was all the bond money, spent long ago on daily expenses -- the equivalent of borrowing to buy groceries.

I'm not saying the car fee issue is the reason the state is currently in chaos. It's far deeper and more complicated than that. But I do believe that the simplistic, downright silly approach Americans take to politics is largely to blame. It long ago became more about marketing and entertainment --- and preening, shallow self-gratification --- than serious consideration of responsible governance.

I would be remiss if I didn't total up the $6.3 billion a year in lost revenue from the vehicle license fee, along with the interest on those needless economic recovery bonds, and note that the total is surely more than the current budget deficit or even the last two combined.

But Digby's main point is correct. When the media in this state bothers to pay attention to politics, it's as a freak show, and they ascribe the same kind of reporting available in the sports section rather than give anyone the information they need to make serious choices about what kind of state they'd like to live in. The so-called "car tax" was the kind of populist pitchfork-fest that was perfect for Schwarzenegger, and he repeated enough movie quotes and manipulated enough emotions to prevail. Along the way, almost nobody challenged the thesis, nobody provided the truth about the VLF, nobody slid the debate from the zaniness of the recall - porn stars! - into the serious business of a government that works.

Digby thinks that "we are going to have to reform more than the state constitution to fix things. We need to reform politics itself somehow, convince people that it isn't American Idol or the World Series, or the ruling class will always be able to afford to put on a show whenever they need to manipulate the folks and the folks will probably fall for it." And I agree with that to an extent: for one, the system cannot be reformed without a responsible citizenry understanding the reasons why. But I'm enough of a goo-goo to believe that enough people can become energized by taking back their government so that the seriousness and the structure will be injected back into California's system. That's why I believe sweeping constitutional reform is in the end the only option - because a status quo system will only empower the types of shenanigans that brought us both the Governator and hundreds of thousands if not millions of residents left with no help and no hope. To get the circus out of town, we must offer an alternative to the sideshow that is our government. If enough of us wish to be a laughingstock no more, it can be done.

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