Sunday, September 4, 2011

California Crackup

“Throw the bums out!”

“We’ll turn this mess around...we always do!”

“If we put our minds to it there’s nothing we can’t do!”

These are but a few of the weighty sentiments that have been bandied about in the past 35 years as solutions to California’s seemingly intractable social, economic and political riddles.  They’ve been peddled by evangelical tax-cutters whose deluded ranting increasingly commands widespread agreement amongst California’s public; by angry activists who want someone close at hand to blame and who need a sense of optimism to keep fighting in the face of odds; by Jane- and Joe-Citizen, who probably know as much about California’s history, constitution or lawmaking process as I do about quantum chromodynamics; by newspaper columnists, shock-jocks and television presenters whose polarised eagerness to inflame passions or sing their moderation to the stars to avert falling ratings and readership is matched only by their recitation of the homilies of the right and the ‘centre’; and by politicians themselves who, stripped of power, burdened by responsibility and beset by crises, serve as the public’s favourite whipping boys.

In this maelstrom of debates about deficits, debt, democracy, privilege and morality, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s contribution, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is a must-read.  For the uninitiated, it briefly details California’s history of constitution writing (including the darkly hilarious 1879 constitution, which was ratified at the Constitutional Convention of that year without being read in its entirety by a single delegate), the construction of our Frankensteinian ‘direct-democracy’, and the engineering of Prop 13—which made it onto the ballot because the Republican Party in the state legislature prevented passage of a bill that would have done the same good that Prop 13 does (keeping property tax rates low for those on the margins) while not letting businesses and the wealth off the hook through an indiscriminate, blanket property tax break (42-3).

The authors’ thesis is simple: California doesn’t work because it can’t.  More specifically, its current design makes the deadlock we all shake our heads in dismay about all but inevitable.  In other words, the model makes the polity.  Theirs is a purely structural fix, and so won’t address the more general angst of those of us on the left.  But the adoption of their concrete proposals in their ideal state (about which more below) would leave us with a state unfettered from the chains of minority rule, democratised by the embrace of a rational voting system, and empowered by a more genuinely direct democracy.


The authors point out the undemocratic nature of our political structure.  The initiatives we believe to be a mainstay of our democratic-ness are actually, more often than not, drawn up in the first instance by the scions of the signature-gathering industry (yes, there is such a thing!), who then go and find an interest group to pony up the cash and adopt their initiative (61).  Term limits mean that we have a bunch of representatives who are really just amateurs, don’t understand state government, develop only the most tentative of grasps on substantive issues before being termed out, have no incentive to devote themselves to complex problems, and begin campaigning for another state office half-way through their service.  For me, the imposition of term limits suggests that we are not confident in the robustness of our democracy, that we don’t trust our institutions.  This suggestion means that there are more important changes that need making than the imposition of term limits which, California’s recent history seems to have shown, are no real check on the longevity of politicians’ careers, and actually hurt their ability to solve our state’s problems. 

They also target the supermajority requirements, which allow a minority of Californians to govern tax rates and budgeting, something that is transparently undemocratic and has actually fuelled debt (84-5).  The initiative system permits the insertion of what should be statute law into the constitution, effectively making matters that should be up for debate (school spending, budgeting, taxation) apart from democratic government and enshrining them as inviolable principles.

All of these measures have led to the empowerment of special interests, the removal of power from our elected legislators, the reduction of democratic participation and citizenship to voting and the enshrinement of minority rule.  The beneficiaries of the conservative-inspired tax politicking have never been defined by need.  Instead, they tend to be the most affluent (and fewest) citizens; industries; corporations; interests.  These well-being of these groups, the political Right tells us, is a good measurement of the health of our state, economy and democracy. 

But the financial industry was raking in record profits before it dragged our economy down, and its uppermost scions’ wealth has hardly been touched by the recession that has brought California’s unemployment over 12%. 

The energy industry (which went to great pains to target our state during the ENRON scandal, which implicated some of the biggest names in the Republican Party), in spite of grievous abuses and all-too-predictable accidents (the San Bruno explosion, the Deepwater Horizon Spill), has fought off regulation, taxation and oversight to maintain an enormous profit margin, award itself for its “safety” record, and gouge consumers—while refusing to recognise that our dependence on fossil fuels might well prove deadly. 

These industries are two whose health—judged by profits—looks great.  And yet our state ails grievously.  Clearly the logic of the Right is unsound.  But the Republican Party, in California in particular, will hang onto the no-tax identity for dear life.  They need to.  Because otherwise, they don’t have a leg to stand on in the eyes of the voters.  They hold positions hugely at odds with most Californians as regards the environment, energy policy, the social issues that were once their bread and butter, education and immigration.  It is only by focussing intently on a small-minded appeal to people’s baser instincts that the Republican Party retains any power at all in California today (and the demographics, as is oft pointed out, are moving inexorably against them).

For all the talk of omelettes and eggs and shared sacrifice, the Republican Party never reaches for the carton containing those best able to afford sacrifice to play Humpty Dumpty...their turn never comes, while California’s students, economically marginal populous and public services take blow after blow for the supposedly-collective good.  But that doesn’t mean that the reforms proposed in California Crackup will be an easy sell.

Because even if they never come out and say it, that is the implicit message of Mathews and Paul’s work: that voters deserve a large share of the blame, and that those same voters need to get their act together, re-engage, approach referenda and initiatives with a critical eye, and learn about how their state works—or doesn’t.  And it’s not going to be easy for people to hear that they are part of the problem.  We’ll be hard-pressed to find a public figure who will come out and point the finger at their supporters in the way that needs to be done.


Now it’s easy enough for commentators to identify the problems with California’s political structure, even if the clarity of analysis apparent in California Crackup is rare.  But solutions are rarer.  Oftentimes they take the form of some version of the following formula: ‘reform the tax structure, reform the legislature, address the problems posed by the initiative process...’  In other words, a lot of fuzziness.  But Mathews and Paul present readers with a detailed and concrete set of proposals.

Their suggestions fall under the following headings: ‘Budgeting without Shackles’; ‘The Architecture of Political Frustration’; ‘Remaking Elections and the Legislature’; ‘Government from the Bottom Up’; and ‘A More Direct Democracy’.  Their recommendations, for each heading, are in a nutshell as follows:

-‘Create a real rainy-day fund’, adequate to get the state through times like our own; enact pay-as-you-go legislation, which should apply not only to the legislature, but to initiatives passed by voters; avoid putting tax, budgeting and funding mattes in the constitution, the very last place they belong.

-Begin to talk about the problems with winner take all, plurality victory, single-member geographic districts, and party primaries; avoid thinking that legislative redistricting is going to solve any serious problems; roll back the jungle primary, which closes out other political parties even more; move to either an Open  or Semiclosed primary (124-5).

-Create Multimember districts with proportional representation (so that a candidate who might only represent a third of voters in a crowded election will not be those voters’ sole representative); use either party lists, open lists or mixed-member voting lists (in which some of the representatives for a larger, multimember district, would be elected on a party slate and some on a candidate basis—Mathews and Paul include helpful diagrams to allow readers to see what a ballot in each of these systems would look like); go unicameral, eliminating one of the legislative houses; have more legislators, so that they can better represent constituents (California has something like seven times as many voters per representative in the Senate and Assembly as the average state); eliminate obsolete political offices (sorry Gavin Newsom), and make others appointed (Attorney General) so that one individual (the Governor) will bear responsibility for executive decisions, leaving only two elected statewide offices (Governor and Secretary of State); and use Instant Run-off Voting so that every vote counts and elections are less personal.

-Return to the 1993 paper, “Making Government Make Sense”, authored for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides a helpful model for sorting out the duties of different levels of government; “governing for less crime” by allowing local government to choose how to spend funds directed their way by the state government (they would have to pay the state for prisoners); streamlining local government (one of their fuzzier suggestions).

-“Require initiatives, as proposed laws and constitutional amendments, to adhere to the same rules as legislation”; “establish higher standards for constitutional amendments that give voters and lawmakers complimentary powers to add to or subtract from the document”; “require any initiative that would impose supermajority voting rules to win the same supermajority of votes to become law”; “require all ballot initiatives and bond measures to live within the legislative budget”; “permit the legislature to enact each initiative or place a counterproposal next to the initiative on the ballot”; “make it easier for voters to overturn the legislature through more referendum-based [rather than initiative-based] direct democracy”; thereby, in the authors’ minds, creating something more like a partnership between citizens and their representatives (175-183).

You will very likely not agree with all of these suggestions.  I don’t.  But I think that most of them are a very good idea, and would go a long ways towards addressing the structural problems that hamstring our state.


Mathews and Paul also anticipate what I imagine would be the two primary objections to their proposed reforms.  One would be the ‘this is different, it’s not how we do things’.  And the GOP, in its present state of madness, would probably play the ‘Europe Card’.  ‘We’re Americans and we’re not going to do things the way Europeans do!’  It would be absolute and utter madness to deliberately spite yourself, to make a decision that you know will hurt you, to avoid adopting measures that you know will help you, on the basis of logic like this.  But there will be those who will be quite happy to go down this sorry road.

The second objection, particularly to ballots that ask voters to rank their choices or give them choices where initiatives are concerned, is likely to be along the lines of, ‘It’s too complicated!’  This reminds me of GOP complaints about the tax code or healthcare legislation (absurdity which reached a kind of divine perfection when Herman Cain—jokingly, I hope—suggested that all bills should be three pages or less).  The idea that, when grappling with problems as significant as the generation of revenue for a country of 300 million people, or the creation of a healthcare system that treats people across a spectacularly enormous spectrum of age, geography, workplace and means, legislation can afford to be short and simplistic, is quite simply ignorant.  And so for our systems of voting and representation.  More to the point, Mathews and Paul note that in cities where such voting systems have been enacted, voters not only report that the ballot is easy to understand, but that they felt better about the system than the old one (150).

What makes the prospect of reform even more difficult than the reluctance of voters and political parties to deviate from past practise—however bad—is the need for these reforms to come as a package.  Enacted piecemeal, they might have little effect, unanticipated effects, adverse effects, and discredit the reform process.  Taken together, they complement one another and provide the systematic overhaul that we really need.


What Mathews and Paul’s approach will not help us with is what many of us would regard the irrationality and greed that characterises much of our politics.  Their structure, designed to incentivise cooperation, only works if the parties in question are interested in electoral success.  It doesn’t account for a force like today’s conservative Republicans, many of whose politicians are genuinely mean-spirited and amoral.  Howard Jarvis, their Prop 13 standardbearer, is a case in point (this is a man who, in the 1970s, referred to elective courses in schools as “frills” and summer school as “nothing more than a baby-sitting program” [44]).  As long as there are people out there who don’t mind that businesses have received twice the benefits from Prop 13 as homeowners, who believe in dismantling public schools, we still have a problem. 

People in states and countries where reforms like those the authors recommend have been enacted are not necessarily more informed about public policy and the way their government is structured.  The ignorance that allows people to praise Prop 13 as a great decentralisation of power through the return of tax dollars, blithely ignoring that Prop 13 was the great centraliser—forcing the state to pick up duties that local governments were now unable to perform—in the history of California’s government, will not necessarily go away with structural reform. 

Nor should the claim that local school districts and governments always know best go uncontested.  Like people everywhere, they will know what they think is best.  Mathews and Paul would say, ‘Well, that’s their right, and if they were to cause tremendous damage to, say, curriculum, funding, the dissemination of funds, very likely  they’ll feel the consequences and come to their senses’.  This is a kind of ‘free market’ approach to the public good which will undoubtedly sit uneasily with many of us.  There’s a reason for the measure of constitutionality, and the same principle could be applied to education, the regulation of pollution and pesticides, etc.  In the ideal system the authors propose, it would still be very possible for numerically small but financially wealthy interests to capture power, and to make changes that would ignore the needs of constituents.

Similarly, if we believe that education, if done right, provides the tools and knowledge to make good citizens, we should make sure that all schools are meeting some basic standard, through some centralised authority as we do today.  Too much devolution can damage the principles of equality and universality.


I recently listened to an interview with Kevin Starr on Forum.  It is over two years old, but could have been given yesterday, for the issues the former State Librarian and USC history professor discussed are as relevant today as in 2009.  Host Scott Shafer referenced the grand vision for higher education in California during the 1950s and ‘60s, the planning and/or construction of three new University of California campuses.  “To what extent was paying for these things an issue?” he asked.  Starr replied that there had been no significant debate about financing them.  There was widespread agreement that, faced with significant growth in population, the need for innovation in industrial, scientific and technological spheres, more and better public higher education could only be a good thing.

Then, Starr argued, there was “consensus to the center and a willingness to negotiate the center...the center being the public sector in California”.  Proposition 13, he continued, changed things in a more serious way than we’ve been willing to acknowledge.  In a very real way, Starr argued (and I agree), it is only today that we are beginning to think through the implications of Prop 13—its assault on the public good, its shackling of the state, its prioritisation of wealth-accumulation.  Similarly, and this is true at the national as well as state level, “Perhaps the great debate on the New Deal is finally, at last, surfacing with us”.

It’s certainly a debate we must have, given the attack that the political Right is launching on public education, public healthcare, the public provision of welfare, public regulation of pollution and damaging energy consumption, public parks and public waterways and forests.  Joe Mathews and Mark Paul have little to say about where they would stand in such a debate, but the great merit of California Crackup is that it provides a detailed, substantive and very thoughtful as well as thought-provoking framework for how to organise our polity, the state of California, so as to have that debate and act on it in a fair, democratic, transparent manner.

Their book, as the critics say, is a must read.  I’ll even loan it to you if you ask nicely.


  1. You'll be happy to know that this book was assigned as part of my Capitol Fellows reading list. It gives me hope that at least some of our legislators stay abreast of the important ideas concerning our state.

  2. That is heartening. Now hopefully they have the gumption to act on some of the ideas...
    Have you started at the Capitol yet? Looking forward to an update once you do!