Sunday, September 26, 2010

The job offer that never was and Meg Whitman's plans for California

I got an e-mail from Jerry Brown the other day. 'Dear Jeff', it began. 'Because you seem to think you know best, I'm sacking that worthless Katy'--she's the one who sends me those 'We-really-appreciate-your-support-and-feedback' replies to all of my e-mails (all the more galling because I've usually been writing to explain why I can't support Brown)--'and appointing you my campaign coordinator'.

Of course that's not really what the e-mail said! Though perhaps it should have. It was actually asking people on his mailing list (assumed to be supporters rather than just the morbidly interested) to reject that worthless Meg Whitman, who is proposing to scrap the capital gains tax. This is actually an e-mail I can get on board with, because Whitman's policy seems so clearly wrongheaded. It's hard to muster up a lot of pity for people who make the kind of money that's going to put them in range of the capital gains tax (especially when Meg Whitman's plans for the renewable energy sector, education and state government are going to be putting a lot of workers in serious trouble). It's revenue for the state, which if properly utilised should work to close the gap between the rich and the poor which is far greater in our country than in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe. Why eliminate a tax which reflects a person's broader tax bracket, and which isn't generally touching people who might be in genuine need of tax relief?

But there's not much to be said for most of Whitman's policies. She talks callously about the need to make state employees redundant in the name of efficiency. What kind of an economic plan relies on forcing people out of work? I'm not sure how adding to the unemployment rolls will benefit our state's social fabric (but it's okay, apparently, because they're state workers, we're told), or whether her plan to alleviate some of the pain by relying on natural attrition and a hiring freeze will work (surely you can't predict which sectors of state work will see the most retirees, and some jobs will need replacement: thus either there will need to be a lot of cost- and time-consuming re-shuffling and re-training of workers, or else new hiring will actually be necessary).

We shouldn't be surprised to see Whitman demonising state employees, most of whom (like workers in general) work very hard, because the premise of her campaign is to break apart California as a social entity and to put the corporation and the individual (and woe betide that individual if they are thrown to the wolves of the unfettered market idealised by Whitman and her ilk) at the centre of life in our state, leaving no room for community and mutual responsibility.

This callousness is also reflected in Whitman's plan to rob a billion dollars from state welfare to throw at California higher education. While a billion dollars would be welcome anywhere in California's education system, it would only represent the beginning. And taking that money from people who are down on their luck, have been wronged by the system (soon enough some of those state employees Whitman is planning to fire, if she gets her way), who are sick, poor or otherwise unprivileged, is clearly morally wrong (moreover, it's been pointed out that cutting a billion from welfare could possibly lose the state almost four billion in federal funds). I certainly wouldn't want to know that my education was being paid for by money taken from those who need it to meet daily needs.

Whitman has no right to portray herself as the defender of public higher education. And this isn't really about higher education anyway. UC, CSU and CCC only feature as a positive, entrepreneurial counterpart to the so-called broken welfare system. This is part of the same malicious targeting of poverty that so many Republican Party candidates have joined in on over the years. Like those who have come before, Whitman whines about the generosity of California's welfare system (and the subtext is that most recipients of welfare are 'welfare cheats'). First off, our duty is to provide for those who are too weak, too old, too poor, too young or too ill to look after themselves, and we have to ensure that every one of these people are taken care of before we begin looking for savings.

There are, of course, people who game the system (and there are people who game the financial 'welfare for the wealthy' systems as well). But for every one of them, there are many, many people who are in need of help. We shouldn't be churlish about extending aid to those less fortunate than ourselves, and California's students certainly shouldn't make themselves party to the right-wing of the Republican Party's long-standing project of criminalising poverty.

We should in fact be thinking, in California and across the country, about the need for a living wage, the kind of commitment to something approaching full employment which characterised the post-World War II era in many countries, and a bill of rights which includes access to healthcare, housing and education.

It's easy for both Brown and Whitman to identify points of savings in prisons, education and welfare, and to suggest that these are the solution to California's social and economic malaise. But until one of them faces up to the democratic deficit represented by minority rule, Prop 13, the saturation of our politics with money that has been in a lot of filthy places, the lack of competitive primaries, and the idea that there is only space for two parties in state politics, Brown and Whitman are only skirting around the real problems. So long as they continue to do business through the 'usual channels' (which Tony Benn memorably referred to as 'the most polluted waterways in the world'), the state will only stagger on, living year-to-year, hand-to-mouth.

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