Sunday, December 4, 2011

Think Long's California Coup

I used to think of the European Union as one of the world’s better things.  After all, it was created (its first iteration was the European Coal and Steel Community) in the wake of the bloodiest war the continent had seen in an effort to prevent European nations—France and Germany in particular—from ever going to war again. 

And the result of a group of countries all committed to the idea of social democracy coming together would surely be nothing more than social democracy writ large, right?  But I’ve grown less sure of that over the last few years, and the EU’s handling of its members’ economic crises has firmly convinced me that the ‘democracy’ part has been thrown out the window, and that the ‘social’ is being remade along some very dangerous lines.

Just recall the outrage of EU elites, the leaders of France and Germany, and the press in Britain, when the then-Prime Minister of Greece suggested holding a referendum on the economic program being forced on his people by the large, bullying nations of Europe.  Or the dismissal of the notion that Italy should hold an election in the wake of Berlusconi’s departure to allow Italian ‘citizens’ to choose their country’s path.  I put ‘citizens’ in quotes because it is clear that increasingly, when it comes to decisive economic matters, the people living in the less economically robust nations of Europe are more subjects than citizens.  Italy is now being governed by a man who was parachuted into high office thanks to the approval of Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy.  Much of the work of the EU itself is done by appointed Commissioners, and it is headed by an appointed President of the European Council and an appointed President of the European Commission. 

As a sign of where the European Union is today, Nigel Farage (of the UK Independence Party) now sounds prescient in his criticisms of the EU—some of his more nutty ring-wing diatribes and apologias for capitalism aside.  What the rolling back of democracy in Europe means is that the focus of European politics will shift even further from a focus on people to a focus on markets.  It means the loss of sovereignty, the beginning of the end of what at the start of the millennium commentators were heralding as the European Dream, and steamrolls the social democratic pact between governments and people.


Now what does this have to do with California? 

I’ve been wanting to write for some time about Think Long, a ‘citizens group’ of self-appointed saviours who are pooling their resources to develop a program to overhaul California.  After following the link to their website from an LA Times story, I stumbled across an extraordinary document, “A Blueprint to Renew California”.

Now the first thing that should be said is that these are not the Koch Brothers.  This is an altogether different sort of people, although I suspect that most of them would be counted as numbering amongst the 1%.  Some of them are former public servants (elected and appointed alike), and many of them have declared their willingness to pay more taxes.

Some of their goals are commendable: more funding for K-12 and higher education, the creation of a reserve fund, more accountability, etc.  And they recognise the need for serious political reform, although few of their ideas in this area are new, and a better articulation of the political and historical context which makes reform so urgent can be found by reading California Crackup, reviewed here (if you still haven’t read it, do so).

But they overplay their hand, in a seriously dangerous way.  Bowing to conventional wisdom, they identify excessive partisanship as the cause of California’s breakdown.  This ignores the fact that the implementation of serious political reform—reforming Prop 13, eliminating the supermajority, creating a fairer voting system—would mean that elections actually meant something, and that the proponents of ideas who received majority support could actually implement them.  Bipartisanship as Think Long conceives of it, centrism, the gospel of moderation...these are all short-sighted and destructive.

But their most eye-popping suggestion lies elsewhere in their recommendations.  And it isn’t their call to reduce income tax across the board while increasing a sales tax and fiddling corporate taxes (meaning that more of the burden will be shifted to those who can least afford it).  Nor is it their call to roll back environmental protection and regulation  in the service of aiding business. 

In declaring California’s current political-economy unfit for purpose, they appear to be directing their fire squarely at the idea of democracy itself.  Because they call for the creation of a “non partisan Citizens Council for Government Accountability”.  Initially, this doesn’t sound so bad.  But if you keep reading, you begin to understand that this would amount to an usurpation of the rights of citizens along the same lines as those being staged by the European Union.

This Council “would be empowered to place initiatives directly on the ballot for public approval”.  Such an action, Think Long reasons, would “ensure that the public’s priorities—excellence in education, world-class infrastructure, a sustained quality of life, opportunities for good jobs and the strengthening of a vibrant middle class through boosting the state’s competitiveness in today’s global economy—remain at the top of the public policy agenda over the long-term”.

First, we must be fair to the Republican Party.  If we may use their voting record as a guide, the Republican Party and many of its supporters are interested in dismantling California’s education system, and in prioritising corporate over public good to an extent that will erode the middle class, while pushing those already on the margins of society into darker corners, uncared for and unacknowledged.  But the Republican Party’s immoral and socially irresponsible policies aside, it is not the job of a Council to decide what California’s priorities should be. 

They repeatedly embrace the label of “non-partisan”.  But this is misleading.  As George Orwell famously asserted, everything is connected to politics.  The proposed Council-members might not be affiliated with one party or another (although a remarkable number of Think Long committee-members have served, led or bankrolled either the Republicans or Democrats), but they will still have interests, and these interests will lead them to approach the world from a particular standpoint—one which is not only likely to be elitist and corporate, but very much removed from that of most ‘citizens’.

Think Long’s assertions grow even bolder throughout the document:  “The Think Long Committee believes it is not enough for elected political figures to pledge they will pursue good governance ... To ensure accountability and to balance the short-term politics of Sacramento, good governance should also be entrusted to a body of citizens invested with the power to demand performance from their elected officials as well as the power to place initiative proposals, addressing reform in areas such as jobs and education, directly before their fellow Californians for approval”. 

This is serious stuff.  Democracy is imperfect, but this group is going further still, and attacking it as insufficient.  They are saying that it doesn’t matter whether Democrats largely dominate California numerically today (though to little effect thanks to the undemocratic supermajority rules), or if Republicans were in the ascendancy tomorrow: they, California’s elites, know better, and are asking that we create a whole new sphere of government and policymaking, entirely unelected and grossly unaccountable, to direct our state.

Their object: the creation of an “independent, impartial and non-partisan body” (let’s come back to this later), which “would be established to develop a vision encompassing long-term goals for California’s future.  It would be tasked with charting, coordinating, shepherding and sustaining an integrated strategy for the state aimed at creating educational excellence, world-class infrastructure, environmental quality and a competitive business climate that generates high-wage jobs”.  Its powers would include “placing initiatives directly on the ballot”, receiving “authorization to direct the Secretary of State [an elected official] to publish the council’s comments and positions on relevant proposed initiatives and referendums on the election ballot”, and “subpoena power”. 

So without check or consultation, this group of people who are ostensibly independent (of the people as much as of politicians) and impartial (although they would certainly be partial to some interests as opposed to others, because they, like everyone else, have life experiences and connections that inform their worldviews) would set the course for our state.  They could write up propositions and ensure that their commentary and positions gained a unique hearing that would grant their views influence all out of proportion to either their numbers or the degree to which they represent Californians.

Now who would this “body of citizens” be, with whom we are entrusting our affairs?

According to Think Long, “the council would be composed of 13 voting members and four ex-officio non-voting members.  Nine members would be appointed by the Governor.  The Senate Rules Committee would appoint two members, one from each of the state’s two largest political parties.  The Speaker of the Assembly would appoint two members, one from each of the state’s two largest political parties.  At least two of the Governor’s appointees would not be registered in either of the state’s two largest political parties.  The four ex-officio and non-voting members would include the Director of Finance, the State Treasurer, the State Controller, and the Attorney General, whose duties would include the analysis of initiative proposals ... Terms would be limited to two six-year staggered appointments”.

Now forgive me, but this appears to deal a mortal blow to their claims to be independent and non-partisan, as well as to the idea that they would constitute any serious break with the past.  The University of California Regents are a good example of the abuse that the public suffer when their institutions are governed by a politician’s patronage network, and of the wreckage that supposedly independent and non-partisan people can inflict on what was once our state’s finest institution.  When politicians appoint people, they generally do so under the operating assumption that those people share their views.  And appointees will be expected to reciprocate the honour done them by the appointment.  Independent?  Uncheck.  Non-partisan?  Uncheck.  In fact, I imagine that the Council’s composition wouldn’t look very different to the California Assembly or Senate, or the UC Board of Regents, or to California’s ruling class as a whole—the very groups Think Long believes are responsible for our current predicament.  In fact, it would probably look a lot like Think Long, so I espy some self interest.  Members of the Council “would only receive per-diem expenses”, further ensuring that only the independently wealthy would be able to participate.

And who are the people behind this venture? 

Willie Brown...probably one of the names in California politics least associated with transparency and accountability, the man who called himself the Ayatollah of the Assembly when Speaker, and who brags in his San Francisco Chronicle column about his continued role in the backroom wheeling and dealing of state politics.

George Schultz is representative of the breed who spend their lives swashbuckling seamlessly between the political and corporate worlds, supporting the Bush Doctrine and the invasion of Iraq here, serving on Bechtel’s board and getting post-invasion contracts in Iraq there...

Condoleeza Rice is hardly known for sterling judgment, and the others on the Think Long Committee for California comprise CEOs, financiers, ex-politicians and judges and the like.  In short, representatives of the economic class which plunged our country into a recession by making money out of nothing and failing to invest in our people, and of the political class which stands accused by Think Long of plunging California into chaos.

There are other problems with Think Long’s suggestions for the state.  California has long been on the cutting edge of social and economic developments, and part of this is down to a proactive legislature (Bill Clinton once called it the “most creative legislature in America”).  This would almost certainly be adversely affected by restricting the second year of the legislative session as proposed by Think Long to “budget oversight and performance review”.  This would mark the further corporatisation of politics, and speed its transition into a budget-centred process, something already underway due to the bizarre obsession of the Republican Party with budgeting and taxation at the expense of the welfare of California’s citizens.

But these other problems pale in comparison to the absurd call for a Citizens Council.  The creation of such a council would spell the end of California as a democratically-governed polity, a status already threatened by the enshrinement of minority rule.  It would enshrine elite interests and limit the ability of Californian voters of all political persuasions to set the direction they wish for their state.  It would absolve Californians of the responsibility we have to engage in civic behaviour, and of our culpability in generating our present crisis through our participation in state governance by way of the initiative process.  It would mark the rise of the same kind of technocratic elite that is dominating European politics, to the detriment and dismay of citizens across the continent, but particularly in smaller countries where unelected bureaucrats are denying people their right to participate in democratic processes.

But worst of all, if this is really is a global trend, and the best answer people can come up with to the inequality, injustice and corporate irresponsibility that plague our world, it would be a pathetic ending to one of the more noble experiments in human history.  It would be sad indeed if democracy went down not before a totalitarian onslaught, but because a people possessed of little imagination and less moral fibre willingly handed over the rights of citizenship—gained by generations of forbearers in the face of powerful political and economic opposition and indeed tyranny—to the very group of people who are responsible for many of the world’s ills.

Think Long is aiming to stage a coup in California.  This sounds dramatic, but their usurpation of the democratic process would be nothing less, and must be stopped.


  1. Nice post (if perhaps a touch long, only the Brahamans among us have limitless time :-) Not sure how I feel about this Citizen's council, though I have thought that the barrier to all these ballot initiatives should be higher. Connection to Europe seems a bit tenuous perhaps, (maybe two shorter posts?).

    Plus my feeling about this European crisis is that perhaps they have 'too much' democracy not too little especially for the level of monetary integration they are trying to achieve. As I understand it, the root of the problem is the monetary policy is being set for the strong economies and there is no fiscal integration so the weak economies can get transfer payments/direct borrowing on the credit of the economic union as a whole.

    Where the democracy comes in is that the solutions to correct this (euro bonds, european (german) assumption of all the debt, transfer payments from the north to the south) are so politically unpalatable to the people that the leaders are stumbling around trying to treat the symptoms without addressing the underlying causes.

    Sorry for all my mutterings about long post, my comments ran from pithy to slightly rambling oh well to close with the words one of your favorite Britains, NAY FAVORITE PEOPLE:

    "Democracy is the worst possible form of government, except all the others"

    all the best

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I think you're right in the sense that there's a mismatch between the level of democracy that exists within given European countries, in which citizens are allowed to decide that quality of life is more important than the strength of the 'market' in more regional or global terms on the one hand, and the dearth of democracy within the EU (there really is virtually none when you consider that in many countries turnout for EU Parliament elections are so low), which these days looks a lot like a neoliberal clearing house, and in the way that responsibility for making up the difference does wind up falling on countries that have made a different set of choices. I think that Europeans need to have a long think about how viable economic integration might actually be. It often seems as though smaller units can be managed more democratically and to better effect. I've always been fond of the idea of a Republic of California.

    I don't think there's a direct connection (as in cause/effect) to California, but I think it's disturbing how people across the world are turning away from democratic institutions and towards a technocratic form of governance that is assumed to have all our best interests at heart and ascribes to this nutty idea of political neutrality.

    I'll ignore the mortal insult from the end of your comment! I have no idea who you're talking about anyway...

    best wishes from blighty

  3. Very enlightening. Loved reading this.

  4. Thanks, that's very kind. Glad you enjoyed it.