Monday, March 19, 2012

Jerry Brown Kicks the Can...To Avoid Prop 13

“Kicking the can down the road” is an expression much beloved of politicians, particularly by those with an underdeveloped sense of irony, it would seem.  California Governor Jerry Brown used the expression extensively during his campaign for governor to castigate what his predecessors (including himself) had done, and what his opponent, billionaire Meg Whitman would do, regarding the state’s budget.

Brown, it was explained to California’s voters, would be different.  He was a serious man, who had a keen grasp of California’s political scene.  Just how keen we learned when, instead of working to get a tax initiative on the ballot for 2010, he decided to negotiate with Republicans for a tax increase, forgetting the elementary fact that the GOP legislators in California have all signed some kind of cult-like anti-tax oath (not dissimilar to Brown’s own anti-tax pledge, which he used to hamstring his position while pandering to press and public during his lacklustre campaign).

Brown, it was further explained to California’s voters, was a man with a keen sense of mission who would focus with laser-like intensity on long-term solutions to California’s economic and political woes.  Now anyone who’s read a newspaper in the last thirty-odd years knows that anyone interested in long-term solutions to California’s economic and political woes has to address Proposition 13.  Prop 13, we should all know by now, created an undifferentiated system of property taxation that protects taxpayers but also constitutes a giveaway to wealthy corporations and real-estate interests, while simultaneously enshrining minority rule through the extension of the principle that it takes a supermajority to raise taxes but only a minority to shred our state’s social fabric.

But Brown hasn’t mentioned Prop 13, which he implemented with the zeal of a convert when he was Governor the first time around, until last week.  The bare mention of it—the Governor’s own laziness and intransigence led to Prop 13’s passage in 1978—sent columnists into paroxysm of admiration over Brown’s courageousness, and the proposition’s fundamentalist supporters—Californians Against Higher Property Taxes—into paroxysm of foaming-at-the-mouth fury.  Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters noted that Californians Against Higher Property Taxes “released a study purporting to prove that raising business taxes ‘would result in lost economic output and decreased employment’”. 

Now I operate from the premise that anyone who calls themselves Californians Against Higher Property Taxes is functioning, as they say, with a few cards short of a full deck, or else with something to hide.  Because nobody who is using their brain properly starts out a debate being “against” taxes under any circumstances—not if their concern is the welfare of their society.  As social and economic circumstances change, levels of taxation, the revenue from taxation, and the necessity to support various public programs changes as well.  When you start out opposing “higher” taxes under any and all circumstances, you’re starting from a position of either pure ideology or pure greed, either one salted down with a healthy dose of stupidity.

But their immediate and knee-jerk response to any criticisms of Prop 13—and most such criticisms call for its reform rather than its wholesale repeal—is illuminating.  Nobody’s proposed a reform to the property tax system, so how could they possibly know how economic output and employment would be affected?  Different reforms of Prop 13 could lead to wildly different outcomes, so surely anyone who is genuinely interested in debating reform (rather than simply screaming any time anyone mentions Prop 13) would have to wait to see a proposal before they react to it?

But back to Brown.  He didn’t advocate reforming or repealing Prop 13, and I doubt that he’s likely to do so.  Because that would require taking a stand and exhibiting the kind of spine and leadership that’s been in short supply during his governorships, when he’s shown a marked predilection for—you guessed it—kicking the can down the road. 

So Brown has picked another of California’s perennial problems, a by-product of Prop 13, a symptom, and is trying to convince Californians that it’s actually the disease.  Brown’s political prioritisation, his way of thinking about California’s problems, means that he’s barking up the wrong tree.  “My goal”, he recently declared, “is to balance the budget.  It’s been in disarray for more than a decade in California”.  Well, that’s certainly true.  But a one-time fix through temporary taxes won’t address the underlying issue, which is that in California, unlike in most functioning democracies, legislators are not provided with the tools that allow them to balance the budget under different ideological programs or social scenarios.  Instead, there is only one way for them to balance a budget (short of the state becoming a one-party system) given the characteristics of California’s population and the already-choked-off revenue stream that property tax would normally constitute: to cut.

So we’ve created a democracy that forecloses choice and denies legislators the ability to craft a budget around public policy.  By a combination of luck and design, California has become a state that is being propelled by a dysfunctional political system down a path of privatisation of its prize institutions, of disinvestment from its public, of disregard for the most marginal of its citizens, and which is guaranteed to exacerbate the inequality between its citizens.

One high-profile Californian politician has repeatedly urged a re-think of Prop 13, and that is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (who has form on this particular issue).  In criticising the three competing tax initiatives mooted for November’s ballot (set to drop to two now that Brown and the CFT have come to an agreement), Villaraigosa took on the short-termist thinking behind these initiatives. 

I don’t know whether Villaraigosa has been criticising Prop 13 because he really believes that its reform is necessary to save California from itself, or because he wants to put blue water between himself and the Governor should he run for the same office in 2014 and believes that Prop 13 will increasingly become a key issue.  But I’m not terribly bothered, to be honest, about his motivation.  The important thing is that not everyone is burying their head in the sand and embracing one or other of the two short-term tax proposals as the key to ending decades of political stagnation and years of social disinvestment.  Both the initiative proposed by Brown and his new allies and that suggested by Molly Munger are short term fixes, of the type Brown castigated when he campaigned against Whitman in 2010.

Neither of the proposals in question would do more than put off the tryst with disaster Californians scheduled for themselves when, in 1978, in a pique of frustration and selfishness, they passed Proposition 13.  It’s time for us to come to terms with the scale of what Prop 13 did to our politics, pick up the can, and think hard about what we want for the future of our state.

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