Monday, April 2, 2012

A Tea Break in Fantasy Land


While waiting for the National Library to open up (the official opening time is eight o’clock, and it was nine, with no sign of movement behind the gate), I strolled down to 1000 Cups Coffee House on Buganda Road, and picked up a copy of a March Economist.  There was a short article about California’s plan for high speed rail, which suggested that the state’s ambitions are perhaps a little ‘out there’, but that it is also serving as the last redoubt when it comes to the benefits of rail travel in the United States.  If I recall correctly, the article, which remembered Governor Jerry Brown by his ‘Moonbeam’ sobriquet, went on to describe our Once and Once Again Governor as “sparkling” in his spirited defence of high speed rail.  The characterisation of Brown, as an oddity to be admired but not emulated, is perhaps representative of the way many people think about California.

This reminded me of a comment from John McFarland in his article ‘Apocalypse Perhaps: California Exceptionalism in the Crucible of the 1990s’, in which he wrote, “To the rest of the country, California’s most annoying tic is their insistence on being special.  They make few friends with their catalogues of grandeur: the economy that outranks Italy’s; the kitchens in which popular culture is cooked up and the skills at orchestrating national trends, all of this privileged by an asserted immunity from the demands history makes on more mundane beings”.

It’s certainly true that there’s a tendency towards self-absorption in parts of the state, a self-absorption which is perhaps forgivable given that it’s often tempered by a benevolent idealism.  Readers of the San Francisco Chronicle  could be forgiven for thinking that the city is the centre of the known universe (though this is no less true of the New York Times, which to my mind manages its claims to galactic centrality with a little less flair and a little too much seriousness).     

But it is all-too short a step from gently mocking the idiosyncrasies of a state that has had a go at creating a social democracy possessed of a vibrant public sphere, to dabbling in caricature and portraying the state as a kind off welfare-dispensing machine in the pay of radical lefties.  Sadly, it’s a step that ostensibly sober commentators have been more than willing to make (Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton among them), and the Wall Street Journal is no exception.

It’s always incredible to me how a Murdoch rag like the Wall Street Journal, which has certain pretensions to respectability, can go in a flash from purportedly weighty, serious financial analysis to trying its hand at the kind of inaccurate demagoguery that characterises the likes of FOX News.  Such was the case in its recent article, “Governor 13.3%”

The Journal suggests that “the government unions that live off tax revenues” forced Brown into calling for a higher tax rate, and went on to say that although Brown recognises the volatility of relying on high earners, “none of these facts matter to Mr Brown or his allies because the tax increase is simply about the political power to deliver money to the interests that live off government”.  Not content with this crude and inaccurate analysis of the revenue process in California, the Journal goes on to caricature the efforts as being in aid of “welfare-state redistribution”.

Firstly, let’s explore the logic of the “government unions” epithet.  The phrase, the cheap calling card of right-wingers, insinuates that the single teacher’s union which negotiated with Brown over modifying his original proposal is run by state government.  This, of course, is not the case.  The truth is that its members are public sector employees.  And therefore, indirectly, funds that are paid by the government to the employees, do form the basis for the union.  And there’s nothing wrong with this.  Which is why, instead of treating public sector unions like the perfectly respectable entities bargaining on behalf of their members that they are (and the private sector would be better off if its members were unionised), right-wingers use the “government union” tag.

Now I’d say that Brown’s actions have much less to do with satisfying special interest groups, than with the Governor and legislature being forced to this position by California’s undemocratic political structure and the shameless, immoral manoeuvrings of the card-carrying, oath-pledging lunatics who run California’s Republican Party today.  But what would be wrong with the redistribution of wealth anyway?  Why should someone who works the same number of hours, doing what I see as much more essential work (maintaining our roads, teaching our children, building homes, for example) be able to live as secure a lifestyle as someone who swaps other people’s money from one account to another, sells homes that other people built, or markets the products that other people created and constructed?

The Economist might think that Brown sparkles, but the same cannot be said of the Journal’s analysis, which relies on a set of stock right-wing complaints, the airing of which should be growing increasingly tiresome to Californians who are seeing their institutions (universities, colleges, and now even schools), social welfare system (care for the poor, the ill and the disabled), and public property (state parks, libraries) all dismantled to satisfy the pet ideological ambitions of a minority party empowered by Proposition 13, which incidentally makes the income and sales tax increases that the Journal is so huffy about the only options available to responsible political parties in California (in addition to cementing minority rule, Proposition 13 introduced an undifferentiated system of property tax which treats a middle-income taxpayer the same as corporate or other wealthy property-owners.  There are indeed a lot of ‘giveaways’ in California today, but most of them are going to wealthy interests who little need them.

The shameless, libellous accusation of clientelism are particularly absurd when levelled at Brown, who has never been particularly fussy about repudiating progressivism in California.  But the Journal isn’t interested in understanding California’s politics, or in giving the Governor (of whom I’m no fan) a fair shake.  They’re just making another trite ideological point, and doing so through a spectacular mutilation of the facts.

The Journal urges Californians to “force the state to confront the limits of tax and spend politics”.  I must confess that I don’t understand what this means.  I do know that “tax and spend” is supposed to be an epithet, one which attacks the moral impetus to educate the young, look after the sick, care for the elderly, sustain our environment, and look after those who are most economically and socially marginal in society.   

And isn’t the point of raising revenue (taxing) that we then invest that money in our state in such a way that benefits a) the entire community (by investing in education, public spaces, environmental regulation) and b) those least well off amongst us (care for the sick, the poor or the unemployed), which has universal benefits through shoring up social cohesion.  I can only assume that the Journal doesn’t really know what “tax and spend politics” are either—they just like the sound of it and see it as a red flag to wave before an audience which, after putting down this ideological rag, switches on FOX news to get a second helping of madness. 

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