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

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Gary Kamiya On The California Crisis

I'm sure many political observers will laud this New York Times magazine article on California's crisis and the men and women who seek to solve it, but I found it oddly pedestrian. The profiles of the candidates reveal little of substance, and aside from displaying the salient fact that Arnold has no interest in the well-being of his constituents, I didn't see the point.

“Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,” Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, “I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,” he said. “I’m going to lay back with a stogie.”

Overall, I saw too much focus on personality in dealing with what is essentially a problem of process.

Actually, while I didn't agree with all of it, I thought Gary Kamiya had a much smarter take, and it didn't mention Arnold Schwarzenegger or the names of any of his potential replacements more than once. The headline, "Californians are sinking themselves," doesn't seem to match the bulk of the article, which focuses on the dysfunctional governing process.

The immediate source of California's financial problems is a lethal combination of ideology and rules. It is deeply politically divided, and its governmental mechanisms are completely broken. Bay Area leftists stare at Orange County conservatives across an unbridgeable abyss; a large and potent group of anti-government libertarians faces off against an equally powerful group of pro-tax, proactive government liberals. If California, like most states, required only a simple majority to pass its budget, the disagreements between these camps could be worked out; after all, the Democrats control the Legislature. But California requires a two-thirds majority, which gives the GOP, now dominated by anti-government, anti-tax ideologues, veto power over the process. The result is deadlock.

Compounding this problem is California's notorious initiative process, which allows voters to bypass the Legislature and place initiatives directly on the ballot simply by gathering enough signatures. The initiative process was originally passed by voters in 1911 to circumvent the power of the oligarchic railroad trusts by restoring direct democracy. And it still offers citizens a chance to take control of important issues. But it has gone out of control, abused by powerful interests who hire people to collect signatures and ram through bills that no ordinary citizen can be expected to comprehend. By sidelining elected officials, it achieves the worst of both worlds: It gives ordinary citizens, who lack requisite expertise, institutional memory and accountability, too much power, and then forces legislators to clean up their mess -- except that because of ideological gridlock and the supermajority requirement, they can't.

Kamiya looks at the three strikes law and in particular Prop. 13, which he views as the ultimate manifestation of the Two Santa Claus theory, that California can have endlessly lower taxes with endlessly more social services.

This was, in effect, a mass outbreak of cognitive dissonance, an up-yours delivered to government with the public's left hand, while its right hand reached out for Sacramento's largesse. Now, 31 years later, the bill has finally come due. There is no free lunch. If you want good roads, parks, decent schools (California's schools, once the best in the nation, are now among the worst) and adequate social services, you have to pay for them.

Out of this, Kamiya points his finger at the people who voted in Prop. 13 and failed to modify it over the ensuing 31 years, who are "self-centered" and have "not decided what it thinks about the New Deal, or government itself." They need to "grow up," Kamiya says.

I think this ignores the fact that Californians have traditionally been offered precious few choices to rectify the broken system. The Democratic Party essentially has made a pact with themselves to nibble around the edges for three decades instead of confronting the great unmentionable crisis of governance. People see the dysfunctional politics play out year after year and become rightfully disaffected with the system. And they are never told anything from anyone in a position of power to counteract the Two Santa Claus theory, and so they necessarily believe it. I don't blame citizens for responding to their leaders. The problem lies with the leadership itself, or more to the point the lack thereof.

I was 5 years old and on the other coast of the country when Prop. 13 was passed, and I'm not about to bear the brunt of the blame for that decision. I would blame myself if I continued to live with the failure of the political leadership to confront the root causes. But Californians are starting to use movement politics to go around the leadership and force the necessary solutions. The sheer enormity of the problem and the size of the state makes this a difficult option. But the alternative, to acquiesce and wait patiently for the leadership to figure things out, is unthinkable.

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