Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Losing Proportion in California: George Skelton and the 'Far Left'

I almost choked on my imaginary coffee when I read the headline of George Skelton’s most recent column in the Los Angeles Times: “California’s right is left aside: the recent deal to combine two competing tax-hike initiatives was cut between the left and far left”.

Far left?  Excuse me?  Give me a break.  I submit that Skelton wouldn’t recognise the far left if it drove up in a Red Army tank, started singing The Red Flag, redistributed his wallet change around the office, and nationalised the LA Times.  The ‘far left’—excuse me, I have to keep looking at his column to ensure that I read this correctly—consists of a teacher’s union.  A teacher’s union.  I repeat, the far left, in the cloud-cuckoo world inhabited by Skelton (and presumably by other paid-up ‘moderates’), consists of a Teacher’s Union that had the temerity to suggest that rather than destroy our education system (our schools and universities), close up our parks, and forsake the weaker members of our society, those of us with the most should pitch in more.

I wish that someone could explain to me why it’s so critical that a deal to save the state should necessarily include Republicans?  Why should we waste our time solicitously consulting the economic fundamentalists who run the California Republican Party when Democrats control 62-65% of the state legislature, when there is not a single Republican in state-wide office, when polls show that overwhelming majorities of Californians favour bolstering our pre-K-12 education system and saving our imperilled universities, and when by Skelton’s own admission Republicans have become a political curiosity (albeit one empowered by minority rule in California), a pack of Dodos wandering around the twenty-first century squawking about the good old days when we bathed in DDT, whined about commies at Berkeley, and gave little thought for the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Skelton offers this gem: “There seemed something off kilter about negotiations that led to Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised tax plan to ‘soak the rich’ ... Here was a Democratic governor not negotiating with Republicans the way our two-party system is supposed to function”.  Perhaps it’s escaped Skelton’s notice, but California is not a functioning democracy.  A functioning democracy does not empower a minority fringe from whatever side of the spectrum to effectively run our finances.  A functioning democracy does not enshrine specifics about tax policy in the constitution.  A functioning democracy does not repeatedly hurl ignorant voters and spineless legislators against one another to ill-effect decade after decade.  A functioning democracy does not require a supermajority to raise revenue and a minority to shred its social system.  A functioning democracy does not, in other words, look like California.

I’ll tell you what’s off-kilter.  It’s off-kilter when we let one of the state’s most sacred and stupid cows wander through our collective front yard, soil the walkway, trample the garden, and then invite itself in to ransack the house while we all sit by and wring our hands about a Left that’s about as ‘Far’ out as the Republican governors (including Saint Ronnie) who raised taxes in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s to pay for California’s social infrastructure.  The blessed bovine is, of course, Prop 13, and if Skelton is eager to see Republicans and Democrats start negotiating like normal people instead of those imprisoned by the selfishness of an earlier generation, that should be his target rather than some fantasy about the Far Left.  The Far Left!  I can’t get over that...

“Deal[ing]” with the “far left” is “unhealthy”, Skelton sagely opines.  He makes it sound like the California Federation of Teachers is led by Osama bin Laden and that Jerry Brown is contemplating some sort of Satanic pact.  Okay, let’s forget the “Far Left” baloney that the columnist seems to have been chewing on over breakfast and think about the rest of it.  There are plenty of political systems in the world (some of which—brace yourself—have more than two parties and actually offer their citizens something like a choice) in which various left-of-centre parties (some of them possibly even deserving of the “Far Left” sobriquet) form coalitions.  Nobody there complains about the right being left out because that’s democracy—if more people agree with one set of ideas, they expect those ideas to be implemented.  Similarly, in other countries there are coalitions of right-of-centre parties (some of which are “Far Right”) which leave out the left in most negotiations because that’s what voters decided.

So why is it so toxic that a party that appears to have the confidence of most Californians should call the shots?  (It’s true that Democrats’ majorities are inflated, but the Republicans’ minority is inflated far more by Prop 13.)

I was deeply disappointed to see Skelton indulge in the kind of gutter rhetoric more appropriate for Fox “News” or some shock jock who hasn’t got enough sleep in the last decade than for a serious newspaper columnist.  This so-called “Far Left” that wants to “soak the rich” is defending principles that polls over the last decade often suggest over 60% of Californians agree with: that when times are difficult, the wealthy in particular need to dig deeper into their  better-fortified pockets to help out their less fortunate fellow citizens.  Neither Brown’s policy nor that of his allies is to “soak the rich”, as Skelton quaintly puts it.  The term’s been dreamt up by right-wingers who have whipped out their microscopes to spot some imaginary left-wing chip-on-the-shoulder behind the move, and by journalists who know it makes good copy, and by people whose sense of political proportion is “off-kilter” to put it mildly.

The policy is to save those things—pre-K-12 education, higher education, our social services—which are or ought to be valuable to all Californians.  Might there be a better way of formulating tax policy to achieve this policy?  Sure—create a more stable stream of revenue that includes fair property taxes by reforming Prop 13.  Would the governor’s original measure have been a better one?  Quite possibly, but it was just as much a stop-gap as this new version.  Would bargaining with Republicans make things better?  Absolutely not, because these people are committed to dismantling all of the facets of the social infrastructure that most Californians value.  Which is why they comprise a paltry 38-35% of legislators.  And hold no statewide office.  And would be on the verge of political extinction if California’s undemocratic system didn’t actually grant them more power than the Governor and the Democratic majority in the legislature combined.

Skelton’s column, and the logic underpinning it, reminded me of a sequence when FOX “News’” Chris Wallace interviewed Jon Stewart and asked him when he’d last voted for a Republican presidential candidate...as though Stewart’s reasonableness depends on having voted for people from different parties representing different ideologies and different approaches to the world.  It just doesn’t make sense to expect people, if they have some kind of philosophy or idea about how the world works, or ought to work, to sometimes vote for people representing a party that believes in letting an imaginary entity called the market dictate our economic and social policy, and at other times vote for a party that believes a democratically-elected government would be better at sorting things out.

I’ve never understood why some bizarre tendency to switch back and forth between parties—to be ‘moderate’ or ‘bipartisan’ (two of my least favourite words)—is considered virtuous.  I understand that occasionally you might change your mind about things, or that at a particularly critical moment you might think that a different approach is needed, but I would consider anyone who made the switch with anything like regularity to be utterly insane.

Which is probably a good way of describing California’s political structure and the election that is going to unfold here in the fall.  Skelton’s right about one thing, and that’s the idea that the tax measure that Brown and his new allies are putting on the ballot has the potential to fail.  A combination of selfishness on the part of voters, combined with disgust at being asked to take an interest in the affairs of their own state and a public mood which will undoubtedly be swayed by heavy spending both in favour of and in opposition to the measure could easily lead to its failure.

Because the fact remains that most Californians don’t understand the full implications of Prop 13.  Too many of them buy the Jarvis propaganda that it’s all about protecting the little guy or keeping big-bad-government from throwing granny out of her house.  Not enough of them understand that it would be eminently possible to preserve the protections for those who need them while putting as stop to the giveaway to those who could well stand to contribute a bit more.  Nor do people seem to grasp that it was Prop 13 which ushered in minority rule and the political, social and economic chaos that such an undemocratic system has brought with it since the late-1970s.

I believe that statewide elections like the one coming this November are likely to have a greater impact on most Californians lives—and those of future generations—than the Presidential election that will occur at the same time.  So let’s hope that Skelton and his colleagues can calm themselves down, set aside the breathless ranting about the “Far Left”, stop pretending that California today is anything like a functioning democracy, and get to work explaining to people what are the real, long-term, corrosive problems undermining our state.  Because those are problems that people of any political persuasion should be able to see, bemoan, and talk about reforming so that we can get back to talking about what the left and right have to offer California.

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