Tuesday, January 24, 2012

State of the State? Denial.


It’s hard to get terribly excited about President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  It will be full of stock phrases about the inherent greatness of America, about how Americans are special, and about the need for serious thinking and sacrifice (though of course it won’t likely ask for any actual sacrifices from anyone).  It will take cheap shots at the radical Republicans’ cynical style of politicking without acknowledging that it has been Obama’s own vagueness, shallowness, and lack of commitment to progressive causes which has put his Presidency on the rocks.

I feel like it’s safe to assume that there is no danger of the President saying anything novel or courageous, and so I might just sit the speech out altogether.

But I did follow coverage of California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address last week.  I wasn’t able to watch the address, but read it,

Brown, who since being elected to office has been easily outmanoeuvred by Republicans who effectively govern the state from their minority position, sought to portray himself as a proponent of public works.  California’s high speed rail project, it seems, will feature as a key part of what will likely be his fairly unmemorable policy legacy.  But the idea of Brown as proponent of public works—theoretically a mainstay of Democratic politics—sits uneasily with anyone familiar with his earlier stint as governor, although this isn’t the first time since reassuming office in 2011 that he has cast himself as a proud Rooseveltian Democrat.  Then he was a proponent of “small is beautiful” and of minimalist government.

In fact in some respects, governance by inaction seemed to be the order of the day, and while George Skelton argues that Brown has matured as an executive and come home for good to California, Brown hasn’t been the most pro-active executive this time around, and has taken heat for not campaigning for his proposals (something which he is perhaps set to rectify). 

California’s Republican Party responded to Brown’s speech along the usual brainless line.  The LA Times quotes Bob Huff, Republican Party leader in the Senate, as saying, “We have a different vision...The governor’s vision is: Tax more people.  Our vision is: Enable business, make government lean and more responsive, and you will get what you want”.

Unless, of course, what we want is an honest and fair government which looks after the economically marginal just as much as the affluent.  Or unless we want a government prepared to invest in excellent public colleges and universities, which not only put our state on the cutting edge where research and innovation is concerned, but which, when open to all Californians who meet the relevant qualifications, builds well-informed and thoughtful citizens.  Or unless we want a government committed to protected the health of our resources and are people by ensuring that the private sector is committed to the public good and responsible to the public.

Brown was clearly trying to make nice with legislators when, in his speech, he reminisced about how “last year, we were looking at a structural deficit of over $20 billion.  It was a real mess.  But you rose to the occasion and together we shrunk state government, reduced our borrowing costs and transferred key functions to local government, closer to the people.  The result is a problem one fourth as large as the one we confronted last year”. 

I wouldn’t call the squealing, unprincipled, backstabbing process that led to the butcher’s budget “rising to the occasion”, given that not only did it continue the process of carving up our public universities, initiate the process of gutting our public schools, and remorselessly hamstring the ability of the state to look after its less fortunate citizens; it also abjectly failed to address the real issue: why it is that a state as wealthy and supposedly progressive as California simply cannot govern itself without engaging in this farcical process on a yearly basis?

It certainly isn’t because our elections fail to return clear results: Democrats control the state Assembly and Senate by wide margins, and in California the party remains a fairly progressive one, most of its legislators committing themselves to the University of California, the California State University, the California Community Colleges, and our public school system, as well as to those systems of social welfare which maintain a basic standard of living for the poorly-off, and a series of environmental- and energy-related regulations which put the state at the cutting edge.

Rather, it is because of our state’s broken political structure, in which 34% of the legislature can put off any revenue increases (while only 51% are needed to cut revenue—something which affects people just as much, perhaps more so, than tax increases, given the wide range of services which inevitably suffer).  It is because Prop 13, which wildly skewed property tax rates and enshrined minority rule, is something that Brown and the Democrats are unwilling to address, perhaps knowing that the Republican Party will fight tooth and nail for protecting its polluting paymasters and corporate sponsors. 

As a result of Democratic cowardice, no serious progressive movement is afoot to overhaul the state.  Signs are that Brown’s push to put tax increases on the November ballot have the backing of significant business interests as well as of organised labour: even business interests seem to have realised that the Republican Party is becoming driven by economic fundamentalists who are out of control and dead set on wreaking as much havoc on public institutions and apparatuses as government as they are able. 

But a temporary tax increase will not address the underlying problem of why too many Californians live perpetually on the brink.  Nor will it take the debate beyond the childish whining about tax levels which fail to ask Californians to commit to an idea of what their public sphere should look like. 

“Putting our fiscal house in good order”, Brown’s State of the State mantra for the last two years, does us no good if that house stands in the middle of an immoral maelstrom or the wreckage wrought by a party devoid of social conscience. 

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