Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Art of Doing Two Things At Once

Try as I might to keep this blog from turning into the anti-George Skelton/Dan Walters page, the good political columnists from the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee aren’t helping matters.  In one of his more recent columns, George Skelton implies that Californians have a choice: either we go with high speed rail, a more sustainable mode of travel which would ideally get people out of their cars and flying less often, or else we fund higher education.  The LA Times columnist is at pains to say that it “doesn’t have to be an either/or question, nor should it”, but the way in which he (and our Governor) engage with the question inevitably turns it into such a decision. 

I’m not convinced that this is a choice we need to make, but I know why Skelton thinks it is.  He buys into our Governor’s view, which is that the first and most important task is to balance California’s budget.  This, as we’ve heard time and again by now, means hard choices, deciding which collective goods we need to dismantle and which we need to shore up.  There’s no room for investment (although curiously, the Governor maintains his support for high speed rail in spite of his otherwise-gloomy prognostications). 

By identifying the budget as the single most important feature of our politics, and by elevating it above every other issue, Brown and those who share his view ignore the way in which the budgeting process in California today is unfairly weighted thanks to the structure of our state politics.  It is, before anyone has begun to debate the issues, weighted against investment.  And it is weighted against investment because it is weighted against revenue (our legislators have next to no flexibility to make honest and sustainable changes to our state’s generation of revenue thanks to Prop 13’s enshrining of minority rule).  It is weighted towards cuts to public services because this is the one direction in which legislators do have flexibility (thanks to the supermajority requirements which seem to envision either permanent political gridlock or a one-party state), and it is weighted, because of these other predispositions, towards catering to the welfare of those who benefit most materially from disinvestment in people—the already-affluent.

So by beginning the conversation with the budget, and bypassing the discussion about the ridiculous structure that makes our politics so eternally intractable, Brown, Skelton and their like foreclose too many choices for my liking.  And that’s why we end up having this rather vacuous “do we cut this or that, and by how much?” conversation, instead of one about the needs of our people and the priorities of our society.

Beginning with the budget also means that Brown passes up an opportunity to tell a story about what a progressive, social democratic state might look like (after all, he is a member of what was once—and still is in some respects—a progressive, social democratic party that wasn’t always afraid to embrace this identity).  In his column Skelton has often praised Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, governor during the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Pat Brown was certainly a man who understood and appreciated the possibility and the value of doing two or more things at once.  The possibility, because he was an ambitious man who actually had an affirmative vision for the state that went beyond the kind of peripatetic managerial philosophy espoused by his son.  And the value, because technological advances that fuel social gains and mitigate social ills stem from investment in education.  Obsessing over the budget from year to year, thanks to our broken politics, means that we’ve utterly lost sight of how things like transport, higher education, recreation, K-12 education, social services, public libraries, early childhood education, and affordable healthcare fit together.  Instead, we tackle them singly, our minds mercenarily fixing numbers to them and puzzling out how they can or cannot fit into a budget instead of how they fit together.  And the budget that results from this process is anything but coherent.  Far from being a map of the direction California wants to chart for its people, it comprises a series of disjointed, rather sordid little bargains, a set of mathematical rather than moral calculations, driven by the need to hit what is, when you come right down to it, an arbitrary magic number rather that establish a framework for a secure society. 

I’m sure I appreciate alliteration as much as the next reader, but Skelton has a frustrating tendency to oversimplify, and to oversimplify in a way that is both crude and misleading.  While I resent the phrase “book learning”, which suggests a world divided between esoteric and practical knowledge where never the twain meets, reducing a major investment in California’s infrastructure to a “cool choo-choo” is worse still (and pretty poor alliteration when you come down to it).  On the one hand it suggests that high speed rail is primarily about aesthetic indulgence, which I do not think is the case.  On the other, it substitutes a kind of mockery for serious criticism, which I suppose has the merit, from the perspective of a veteran fence-sitter like Skelton, of letting the critic of the hook.  And then Skelton indulges in the empty-headed and increasingly tiresome right-wing game of calling any economic plan that calls for people to shoulder the collective burden according to their ability to do so “soak-the-rich”. 

During my tea break the other day I got talking to an Ugandan member of Parliament who chairs the Parliamentary Forum on Climate Change and serves as the Vice-Chair of the Natural Resources Committee.  He was asking about the transportation network in the U.S., and I explained that we had nothing like boda bodas (thank goodness!) or taxis (minibuses), and that people who lived outside cities or major transport hubs were reliant on their private vehicles for local travels.  But surely, he suggested, the U.S. has a good train network.  Not really, I explained.  Where such networks exist, they are often slow and are generally more expensive than flying or driving.  But why, he asked, wouldn’t people favour investing in a means of transport that would cut down on consumptive air travel, the inefficient use of natural resources, and the amount of driving that people do?  I explained that people are reluctant to invest in a proper, efficient, subsidised rail network because a) they say there’s no money in the U.S.; or b) because it’s more important to them to be able to put an anti-tax oath on their wall next to their portraits of Ronald Reagan and Howard Jarvis than it is to develop some kind of forward-thinking vision for our country.

It’s a version of a conversation I have frequently here, where members of civil society or politicians are bewildered that an affluent country, with a deep tax base and institutions capable of tapping that base honestly, would make the choice to disinvest, and to ignore the potential that unbridled resource consumption has to do serious damage to our planet and the communities that live on it.  They are bewildered not just because it doesn’t make sense, but because it flies in the face of the vision people in this part of the world still tend to have of the United States as a dynamic, innovative, civic-minded nation, willing and able to take the lead in tackling global problems.

It’s a real pity that our politicians have developed this peculiar singularity of vision, and that they are encouraged in this lamentable foible by journalists.  I expect that Pat Brown would shake his head in dismay if he picked up a copy of the LA Times, and would think that some things never change if he could see his son in action as California’s chief executive. 

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